Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday left open the possibility that farmers who file prevented planting insurance claims may still be eligible for payments under the new trade assistance package. 

However, he offered no concrete assurances as farmers continue to demand to know how much aid they’ll be getting.

When Perdue announced the trade aid plan last week, the press release indicated that the new Market Facilitation Program payments on grain, oilseed and other non-specialty corps would be limited to crops that are planted this year. The press release said the payments would be calculated “based on a single county rate multiplied by a farm’s total plantings to those crops in aggregate in 2019.”

Perdue told reporters after meeting with farmers in Kennett Square, Pa., that he expects farmers to file prevented planting claims on their crop insurance policies as they normally would, but he added that they could get more.

“If we see any opportunity to use the Market Facilitation Program to enhance or to help that, we will consider that,” he said.

Perdue stressed that no decision has been made yet on whether the MFP payments would be restricted to planted acreage.

“If I was a producer, I wouldn’t want to bet either way,” Perdue said after a second stop to talk to farmers in New Holland, Pa. “We want to encourage producers to plant for the market regardless of government programs. Don’t try to harvest a government program … Do what you feel like you’ve got to do.” 

Perdue’s comments came amid additional uncertainty about how farmers will be treated under a disaster relief bill that is nearing final passage in Congress. The $19.1 billion bill, which passed the Senate last week, would authorize payments for prevented plantings up to 90 percent of the value of an insured crop. 

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told a group of farmers in Minnesota on Thursday that USDA believes the bill would give it the authority to increase prevented planting benefits somewhere between the normal insurance limit for a crop (55 percent for corn) up to 90 percent. 

Peterson, citing a conversation with Bill Northey, USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation, said it was not certain what coverage limit the department would use.

USDA has “put you in an impossible situation to try to figure out what to do,” Peterson told the farmers. 

Agricultural economists have been struggling with what advice to give to farmers who are struggling to get crops planted across much of the Midwest. 

In an analysis posted Wednesday, University of Illinois economists argued the disaster provision for prevented planting appeared unlikely to benefit many growers in the Midwest. One of the authors, Jonathan Coppess, a former administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency, said he interpreted the bill to limit payments for prevented planting to counties that were declared disasters because of flooding. 

The focus of questions to Perdue during his stops in Pennsylvania was on MFP. 

He seemed to shift in what he was saying about the possibility of MFP payments for unplanted acreage when he was asked about the issue at his second stop.

“The premise of the Market Facilitation Program is … trade disruption damage, so if you don’t have something to sell, you can’t really be impacted by trade (loss),” Perdue said. “That’s the whole premise.”

 Perdue said he doesn’t want to be clear on any details that could influence what a farmer plants or doesn’t plant.

“We’re being very opaque,” Perdue said. “Farmers need to make decisions … based on markets and weather.”

The crops that will qualify for the county-based MFP payments are alfalfa hay, barley, canola, corn, crambe, dry peas, extra-long staple cotton, flaxseed, lentils, long grain and medium grain rice, mustard seed, dried beans, oats, peanuts, rapeseed, safflower, sesame seed, small and large chickpeas, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower seed, temperate japonica rice, upland cotton, and wheat.

Philip Brasher and Spencer Chase contributed to this report. 

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