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USDA hasn’t helped small farmers in pandemic, lawmakers say

The USDA has ignored small diversified farms in its $16 billion coronavirus relief program despite specific instructions from Congress to help them, said two U.S. lawmakers on Monday. Wheat growers said they deserved broader coverage, including payments on this year’s crop. The USDA has disbursed $5.9 billion since payments began in early June, with $2.6 billion going to cattle producers.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Reps. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Chellie Pingree of Maine said USDA “did not provide any specific accommodation” for small diversified farmers with the result “many of these farms are struggling to access relief or are entirely ineligible for assistance.” When Congress provided coronavirus relief money to USDA, it said aid should include “producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.”

They suggested aid could be based on revenue losses for the farm, rather than USDA’s approach of providing assistance to a limited list of commodities and calculated at a “one-size-fits-all” support rate. Fortenberry is the senior Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of the USDA budget. Pingree, a Democrat, is a member of the House Appropriations and Agriculture committees.

In a separate letter, the National Association of Wheat Growers asked USDA to expand the coronavirus aid program to include all classes of wheat grown in 2019. At present, only hard red spring wheat and durum wheat are eligible, which amount to about 30% of the U.S. crop, said NAWG.

“I urge you to begin providing aid for economic losses experienced for the 2020 crop,” wrote NAWG president David Milligan.

The USDA coronavirus program was designed to compensate producers for the plunge in commodity markets in late winter and early spring when the coronavirus caused an abrupt slowdown in sales.

Milligan offered NAWG’s help in persuading Congress to earmark more money for agriculture. “In the meantime, we request that you utilize existing authorities and funding at your disposal to begin providing assistance to farmers being afflicted right now and in the coming weeks and months.”

The USDA expanded its list of eligible crops last week and said it expected to make more additions in coming weeks.

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