Lawmakers prod USDA to aid local food growers hit by pandemic

Senators urge Agriculture Secretary Perdue to aid local food growers

Producers who sell directly to consumers are often not covered by conventional USDA subsidy programs.  (Roll Call)
Producers who sell directly to consumers are often not covered by conventional USDA subsidy programs. (Roll Call)
Posted April 10, 2020 at 4:09pm

More than 30 senators from both parties called on the Agriculture Department to provide robust aid for small growers and meat producers who are the backbone of the farm-to-table movement.

In a Thursday letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, 29 Democrats, independents Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said public health restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus have imposed extra expenses for packaging, sanitizing and transportation, or closed restaurants, university dining halls, farmers markets and other venues that these farmers depended on for sales.

Food businesses that remain open are operating under social distancing requirements and limited service, which means fewer orders for their suppliers. State and local officials have been particularly divided over how to address farmers markets, with some shuttering them and others declaring them an essential service that should continue, albeit with restrictions.

Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., were among the lawmakers who signed the letter.

Specifically, they said small farmers who can show that at least 25 percent of their total income comes from local sales should be eligible for direct payments administered by the Farm Service Agency to cover lost revenue and additional costs to comply with COVID-19 health guidelines out of $9.5 billion that Congress included in the third coronavirus economic relief package as a pool of aid money to address financial distress spreading across various segments of agriculture.

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Supporters of locally and regionally focused agriculture say they have a claim on the funds since the law specifically mentions “producers who supply local food systems” along with specialty crops — including fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops — livestock producers and dairy farmers.

The producers involved in direct-to-consumer sales or who participate in regional food hubs that help them sell to wholesale, retail and institutional customers are focused on domestic buyers. They usually don’t have federal crop insurance and do not qualify for conventional farm subsidy programs.

In March, as Congress worked on what became the third coronavirus bill, Dawn Thilmany and Rebecca Jablonski, both economists at Colorado State University, former USDA official Debra Tropp and former USDA Economic Research Service analyst Sarah A. Low calculated possible losses for farmers selling to local markets and regional food hubs at $1 billion by the end of 2020. Their briefing paper was done for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an umbrella organization for agriculture, consumer and environmental groups.

Thilmany, an agriculture economist, said in March that many of the markets cultivated by producers have “all been decimated.”

“When you don’t have university accounts, K-12 accounts or restaurants being viable or having to move to this pickup-curbside delivery model, what the heck do you do?” Thilmany asked.

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Tropp, who formerly administered USDA regional food programs, said farmers markets often are an easier way for beginning farmers to develop buyers for their products.

The 2017 Census of Agriculture found the average gross income for farmers engaged in local food sales was less than $75,000 a year. The census found that total sales by 159,00 farmers amounted to nearly $11.8 billion. Local food sales represented an estimated 3 percent of the value of total U.S. agricultural production in 2017.

Tropp said these farmers often hold off-farm jobs that provide additional income and health insurance benefits.

“People are not making a whopping amount of money,” Tropp said, noting that those off-farm jobs may be in jeopardy as the economy slows down because of COVID-19 closures. The current economic package could help with off-farm job losses with the extra $600 a week in unemployment payments.  

She said there is room for innovation. Tropp said food hubs, which helped farmers become suppliers to restaurants, could change their focus. “They may make it up, frankly, by selling to hospitals and health care,” she said, noting that they are busy under COVID-19.