USDA unveils plans for coronavirus funding

By Jessica Domel

U.S. farmers and ranchers impacted by the coronavirus could receive at least some aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture by the end of May.

On April 17, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and President Donald Trump announced a $19 billion program made up of two parts.

“First, there will be $16 billion in direct payments to our farmers and ranchers who have experienced unprecedented losses during this pandemic,” Perdue said. “For this portion of the program, our economists and USDA evaluated commodity specific losses occurring during the mid-January to mid-April time frame for immediate assistance.”

The program is open to farmers and ranchers regardless of size or market outlet if they suffered an eligible loss.

To distribute payments as quickly as possible, USDA will use funding from the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), along with money from the coronavirus stimulus package, rather than wait for the CCC to be replenished in July.

“We’ve also looked ahead to help provide additional assistance with cost and disruption of markets in the months ahead, not really knowing what the demand disruption would be,” Perdue said.

The second part of the program is a commitment by USDA to purchase $3 billion in fresh produce, specialty crops, fruits, berries, vegetables, dairy and meat protein to be distributed to Americans in need.

The distribution will be made in conjunction with the private sector and will go into food banks and other non-profit based and community operations.

According to USDA, the food purchases will begin with $100 million per month in fresh fruits and vegetables, $100 million per month in a variety of dairy products and $100 million a month in meat products.

Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) applauded Perdue’s announcement about food purchases and coronavirus funding.

“If there was ever a time when Texas farm and ranch families need help, it is now,” TFB President Russell Boening, a Wilson County farmer, rancher and dairyman, said in a statement. “TFB is grateful this program provides $16 billion in critically-needed direct support for farmers and ranchers negatively impacted by COVID-19. This relief funding for agriculture, especially Texas cattle ranchers, provides much-needed certainty as we work through these extreme challenges.”

TFB supports USDA partnering with regional and local distributors to purchase agricultural commodities so those items can reach Americans in need.

“Texas farmers and ranchers are in a unique position regarding our nation’s response to the pandemic,” Boening said. “Each of us is battling the economic impacts on our own farm and ranch while remaining committed to feeding our country.”

Perdue said while the funding available through USDA won’t make farmers whole, it is a good start.

“We don’t expect we’ve met all the needs. We’re not going to make everyone content with this initial tranche, and many people will feel like its insufficient, but we’re doing everything we can to cover as many people—both small farmers as well as larger farmers, and we’ll have to see where the gaps are to address later on,” Perdue said.

USDA hopes to have checks in the mail by the end of May, but Perdue said it is an arduous process and could take longer than that.

“We’re going to push them to get these checks out in May,” Perdue said.

The secretary also anticipates a need for additional funding to help those affected by the coronavirus in the coming months.

“The $14 billion of replenishment to the CCC will not be available to us until July, and I felt like it was imperative to move more quickly to get these areas covered for our first quarter losses because I’m not sure if people can hang on long enough until July to wait for that money,” Perdue said. “We do anticipate further needs. We’ll be looking at second quarter losses as we go forward and have a better data position of knowing what the exact numbers are, but going forward, I anticipate we’ll need additional money.”