by Courtney Llewellyn
Earlier this year, farmers who were directly negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic were offered a helping hand via the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Those producing commodities including non-specialty crops, dairy, aquaculture, wool, eggs, livestock, nursery crops, cut flowers and specialty crops were invited to apply for assistance if they had seen a 5% or greater price decline.
Some of those farmers have received the offered help – but not always in a way that made a difference. Following an Aug. 9 NBC report (available at https://tinyurl.com/y2y3fjdr) that detailed striking disparities in the distribution of CFAP benefits, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, demanded answers “for the inequitable distribution of CFAP benefits and [to] urge USDA Secretary [Sonny] Perdue to provide direct relief for New York’s small farmers, who have been financially devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The NBC report showed that not only have corporate agribusinesses been favored in the distribution of benefits, but large-scale foreign-owned farms have received millions of dollars in relief through CFAP. Small farmers – including specialty crop growers across New York State – have not received nearly enough funding to cover their losses, according to Gillibrand. She is calling on the USDA to address these inequalities and renewing her call to include the Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act in the next coronavirus relief package.
Gillibrand first introduced the Small Farmers Act on April 13, which would provide a one-time debt forgiveness of up to $250,000 across three types of USDA-FSA loans (Direct Farm Operating, Direct Farm Ownership and Emergency Loans). All small farms with an average adjusted gross income of up to $300,000 for the previous five years would be eligible, regardless of their commodities.
“New York’s 30,000 farmers play a critical role in the supply of our food. However, farm bankruptcies are at an eight-year high and net farm income has dropped by nearly half since 2013,” Gillibrand stated. “When Secretary Perdue launched CFAP in May, he said it would provide direct payments to farmers of all sizes. The recent report from NBC makes it clear that’s not the case at all.”
About 7,000 farmers who applied for CFAP received less than $200; 200 received less than $20; the lowest payout was seven cents.
Another issue that small farmers are facing, besides getting some of the smallest payouts, is that they are forced to apply crop by crop, the senator stated, which takes up a significant amount of time if a farmer grows 20 different crops.
On Aug. 26, she sent a letter to Perdue, asking the USDA to provide more information on the way CFAP was set up and to ensure future payments are made in more equitable ways to address market losses.
“I am also asking that CFAP sets aside 50% of all assistance funds for small and midscale operations and to use the same calculations for losses, regardless of farm size,” she added.
Gillibrand’s bill is currently only seeing support from fellow Democrats – “I don’t know why the bill isn’t bipartisan,” she said. One theory she put forward is that most “red” states have commodity crops, which are grown a larger scale; specialty crops are grown in “bluer” states like New York, Pennsylvania and California. She is hopeful that when the Senate goes back into session in September she can be more persuasive.
Her bill is endorsed by a number of non-partisan agricultural groups, including Farm Aid, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA and the National Young Farmers Coalition.
“Small farms were in crisis before this pandemic. These farms are essential to our health and our communities,” Gillibrand said. “We must support the agriculture industry nationwide.”
To read the full text of the Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act, visit https://tinyurl.com/y3l63y77.