Idaho farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers are among those continuing to work hard every day to put food on our tables--despite the personal health threat of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, and enormous strain on the agricultural sector. The intent of this column is to help clarify some of the federal assistance available to help Idaho agricultural producers weather this storm.
Agriculture is facing tremendous disruption due to the shuttering or scaling back of restaurants, schools and other food service operations to limit the spread of COVID-19. According to the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, about half the milk used for cheese and butter typically goes to these sectors. With demand rapidly shrinking, Idaho dairy producers face prices far below production costs. Live cattle prices are down about 25 percent since January, reports the American Farm Bureau Federation. The restaurant sector also accounts for at least half of the lamb industry’s usual demand, according to the American Sheep Industry Association. The farmed fish industry also relies heavily on restaurant and food service sectors for the majority of its sales, as reported by the University of Idaho Extension. According to the Idaho Potato Commission, fresh potato demand at grocery and retail is way up, but food service sector demand for processed potatoes is significantly down, reflecting the slump in restaurant activity. Other fruit and vegetable producers, including onion producers now without a market, are also among those impacted by restaurant closures, reported the Capital Press. In addition, many producers are struggling to secure a needed workforce.
There has been confusion as to what in Phase 3 of the emergency coronavirus response legislation, the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, is accessible to farmers and ranchers. The agriculture relief package provided in the CARES Act will likely not completely compensate for the loss and disruption experienced by producers. Nevertheless, the intent is to help producers through this difficult time.
· The CARES Act includes $9.5 billion to provide direct assistance to impacted agriculture producers, targeted to dairy, livestock, specialty crop and other producers supplying local food systems and farmers’ markets, restaurants and schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers these funds. I joined Idaho’s Congressional Delegation, including Senator James Risch and Representatives Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher, in sending a letter and supporting documentation to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sharing the specific concerns of Idaho’s dairy, beef, onion, potato, hops, barley, aquaculture and sheep industries. We also joined fellow Senators and Representatives in urging the USDA’s immediate release of the funds to offer relief to Idaho’s cattlemen. I joined similar efforts requesting action to help the dairy industry survive this crisis.
· The CARES Act also includes $14 billion to replenish the Commodity Credit Corporation. This fund supports farm, conservation, marketing and other program assistance.
· I continue to advocate for Idaho agriculture throughout the allocation of the direct and program funds. The USDA indicates it would like to make purchases of milk and meat products. This will assist with hunger relief and ease pressure on the agricultural industry. Information about agriculture-related COVID-19 response assistance is accessible on USDA’s website, at https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus.
· Additionally, USDA advises, “Agricultural producers, farmers, and ranchers with 500 or fewer employees whose principal place of residence is in the United States are eligible” for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), administered by the Small Business Administration. USDA’s website, https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus has agricultural-sector eligibility information. To learn more about the PPP visit https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/top-priorities/cares-act/assistance-for-small-businesses or https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/coronavirus-relief-options/paycheck-protection-program-ppp. Efforts continue in order to add additional funds to this program.
· The Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, administered by the SBA, specifically excludes farming enterprises, unless it is a nursery, aquaculture, or co-op. However, congressional pressure is mounting to make this program available to all agriculture producers.
In addition to financial support, ensuring producers have needed labor is a critical food security issue. I have contacted Administration officials directly and joined multiple letters urging the timely and legal processing of seasonal worker visas. This includes joining a bipartisan, bicameral letter requesting the Administration remove hurdles in order to ensure the timely processing of H-2A visa requests, which is the nation’s temporary agriculture worker program, while implementing protocols to protect public health.
I will continue to work to support Idaho producers’ steady work on all of our behalves. As we pray for the defeat of COVID-19 and the health and safety of loved ones, those fighting it and humankind as a whole, a special prayer goes to the agriculture producers not letting up in feeding the world no matter the obstacles.