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Senators prod USDA for pandemic payments to contract growers

Ten weeks ago, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack restarted the USDA’s coronavirus relief program for farmers and ranchers. But payments to contract growers, the farmers who produce hogs, poultry, and eggs under contract for the owner of the animals, remain on hold and lawmakers from poultry states are getting impatient.

“We respectfully request that the department expedite the rule-making process to administer direct payments to contract chicken growers,” said 17 senators and 44 representatives in a letter to Vilsack. “We are concerned by the fact that these chicken growers still have not received federal assistance since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The letter was organized by the Senate Chicken Caucus; Sen. Chris Coons, from President Biden’s home state of Delaware, is a co-chair.

Congress authorized payments to contract growers of hogs, poultry, and eggs as part of the $900 billion coronavirus package enacted in December 2020. The Trump administration said in early January that those producers were eligible for a combined $1.98 billion if they suffered a loss in revenue due to market disruptions and COVID-19 outbreaks at processing plants. Payments were put on hold as part of a government-wide freeze in late January by the incoming Biden administration on recently issued regulations.

Vilsack unveiled the rebranded Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative, with a focus on reaching a broader set of producers than USDA’s previous coronavirus aid programs, on March 24. The USDA is accepting applications from contract growers but cautions on its website devoted to aid authorized last December that payments are “on hold and are likely to require modifications to the regulation.”

“We recognized that it is challenging to determine how losses and payments should be calculated fairly, given variations in the timing of when growers receive and finish raising their flocks,” wrote the lawmakers. “Still, we encourage you to proceed swiftly with making fair payments.”

The National Pork Producers Council noted the hold on payments in a May 21 newsletter. “USDA has still not released additional information regarding CFAP Additional Assistance payments for hogs and contract growers, or for euthanized livestock or poultry,” it said.

The USDA was not immediately available for comment.

Some $450 million has been paid to producers through two versions of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, according to USDA data on Monday, since the application window was reopened on April 5. Producers have received nearly $24.3 billion in pandemic aid since payments began in May 2020.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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