"Lack of specifics in US relief package presents challenge"

As farmers and communities all across the country continue to deal with the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Congress has been working around the clock to pass another round of emergency aid – this time targeted at small businesses and those who have lost income as a result of the crisis (including farmers), as well as boosting our medical capacity to respond. 

Just before midnight on Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed (96-0) The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (S.3548), a more than $2.2 trillion aid bill as part of the ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic. The CARES Act – 880 pages of legislative text in all – follows two previous bills Congress passed last week that provided more than $100 billion in aid to support emergency virus testing, procure medical gear, boost sick leave, and expand unemployment insurance.

The CARES Act contains a number of important provisions that have been widely reported elsewhere, including:  

  • direct payments to most Americans 
  • expanded unemployment insurance 
  • assistance to hospitals 
  • lending programs to support states, cities, and businesses 
  • changes to payroll taxes 
  • a fund to prevent small business layoffs

In addition, the bill includes specific provisions targeting farmers and food insecurity. Those provisions are explained in more detail below. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is pleased that the final deal reached in the Senate includes some relief for farmers and local food systems. And while the coalition hopes more targeted support will be provided in future relief packages, they believe this is a good first step. See NSAC’s statement on the Senate bill here.

Agriculture provisions
The most significant agricultural provision is the creation of a new $9.5 billion disaster relief program to provide “support for producers impacted by the coronavirus.” The funding is reserved for:

  • Specialty crop producers
  • Livestock producers (including dairy)
  • Producers that supply local food systems (including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools)

The inclusion of farmers who have lost their direct markets is a major win for NSAC. An economic analysis developed for NSAC found that farmers who have lost access to direct markets as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and “social distancing” restrictions stand to lose more than $1 billion in sales this year. 

The NSAC is also pleased that these payments for local food producers are separate from the increase in funding for the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) – which saw a $14 billion boost in the final bill. "USDA has utilized CCC funding to provide trade mitigation payments to commodity growers. However, this funding has historically not gone to farmers selling into local and regional markets, specialty crop producers, or smaller-scale farmers who have fewer resources to draw on in times of economic stress or uncertainty – including beginning farmers and farmers already experiencing systemic inequity, including farmers of color. 

"And while we are pleased with the influx of cash to aid growers, the lack of specifics in the bill presents a significant challenge in implementation. Congress provides USDA no direction about how either source of funds should be divided, which farmers should receive priority, or how payments should be structured and delivered. Regarding the new fund alone, the largest advocacy organizations that represent specialty crop growers, beef producers, and the dairy industry have already made requests of Congress for more than $20 billion in immediate support so there is going to be a fight about how the $9.5 billion is divided amongst eligible producers."

Read the NSAC's full comment here.

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