Farmers, allies appeal to USDA for COVID-19 relief

Advice continues to flow into USDA for how it should divvy up the $9.5 billion that was included in the $2 trillion stimulus bill for livestock, specialty crops and local agriculture. 

A bipartisan group of senators and House members sent a letter Wednesday to USDA, urging the department to “deliver targeted, temporary equitable relief” to cattle producers. 

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and other groups promoting local food systems urged USDA to provide aid to that sector that “is commensurate with their expected losses of over $1 billion.”

Meanwhile: The National Milk Producers Federation is “in discussions with USDA officials and key stakeholders throughout the industry to ensure that dairy’s needs are best served by the portion of assistance it receives,” said NMPF spokesman Alan Bjerga. 

Keep in mind: We reported earlier this week on a four-page list of requests from the produce industry, including compensation to growers and shippers for fruits and vegetables that couldn’t be sold. 

Pence, Perdue tout food industry

Vice President Mike Pence and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue hit the road Wednesday to highlight the success the food industry has had so far in keeping stores stocked amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

Accompanied by Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, the pair visited a Walmart distribution facility about two hours from the nation’s capital. Pence told one worker inside the warehouse, “You’re keeping food on the table for Americans, and we’re grateful.”

Outside the facility he reminded a truck driver that he was part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. “You guys are burning up miles every day making sure the American people have food, supplies,” Pence said. 

Pence at recent COVID-19 briefing.

USDA moving to mandatory disease reporting

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is proposing to require animal health professionals to notify APHIS and their state agencies when they encounter animal diseases on a new list developed by the agency.

Notable in the proposal is a requirement to immediately report “notifiable diseases” to state and federal officials. Such diseases include foreign animal diseases as well as unknown or newly identified infections.

Current gaps in reporting make it difficult for the U.S. to provide required information to the World Organization for Animal Health. APHIS currently relies on voluntary reports for many endemic and emerging diseases.

Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian at the National Pork Producers Council, said the changes would help identify emerging and re-emerging diseases. But it will be “essential to have clarity of the reporting responsibilities of all parties and to have an understanding of any potential response to such reports,” she said. 

WTO praises pledges to register COVID-19 measures

Promises made this week by G20 nations to register any coronavirus trade actions with the World Trade Organization will be necessary to help worldwide efforts to combat the pandemic, WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo said Wednesday in tweets.

Countries like Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Russia have been criticized for curtailing food or medical exports, but not all emergency actions are detrimental, so long as they are “targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary, and that they do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains,” G20 trade and investment ministers said in a joint statement Tuesday.

“Millions of vulnerable people rely on trade for their food security,” Azevedo said in one tweet Wednesday. “As the world works to halt the (COVID-19) pandemic, we must be careful not to disrupt the food supply chain.”

The WTO has set up a registry for nations to report emergency measures and has convened a task force to coordinate with other international organizations and WTO members.

Keep in mind: Global trade is faltering despite the best efforts by WTO and countries like Canada, Australia, Chile, Brunei, Myanmar, New Zealand and Singapore that publicly committed to remove trade restrictions on essential supplies.

“In a few weeks the WTO will release our regular trade forecast and our economists are still crunching the numbers, but they foresee a very sharp decline in trade,” Azevedo said.

Lawmakers ask HHS to expedite rural hospital funding

In a bipartisan letter, more than 100 lawmakers are asking the Department of Health and Human Services to immediately provide financial relief to rural hospitals out of the Phase 3 stimulus bill. 

“Right now, some rural hospitals are reporting they are running out of operating funds. This jeopardizes their ability to maintain healthcare services during the COVID-19 outbreak,” the letter reads.

Some $100 billion was allocated in the stimulus bill for health care providers, including those in rural areas.

“All of our hospital systems, whether they are the urban ones or more of our rural healthcare systems, making sure they are supported financially through this,” letter co-signer Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa told Agri-Pulse.

Advocates: USDA can do more on food aid

Anti-hunger advocates are seeking more flexibility from USDA to ensure food assistance gets to the people who need it most during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Food Research & Action Center representatives acknowledge that USDA has taken measures to ease delivery of SNAP benefits and to support access to meals through the child nutrition programs.

They say USDA should also look at granting a nationwide waiver of a requirement that food assistance for school kids be made available only at sites in low-income areas. FRAC legal director Ellen Vollinger says applicants for SNAP benefits shouldn’t have to wait to receive those benefits until they are interviewed by a state worker.

Low crop prices weaken net returns for land

A Purdue University ag economist says low crop prices are weakening net returns for land below the 2018 and 2019 levels.

“You’re looking at a net return to land at about $130” an acre, whereas net returns were above $150 an acre for 2018 and 2019, Michael Langemeier said in a webinar Wednesday. He is the associate director of the Commercial Center for Agriculture.

Langemeier said the 2020 return is also substantially below cash rent. “Even if we return to $200 net return for land in 2021, I think that difference is big enough to cause some reduction in cash rent, maybe as large as 5% moving into 2021,” he said. 

He said it. “The fact that you’re showing up every day – rolling your sleeves up and doing the work – it shows you love your neighbor and you love your country.” - Vice President Mike Pence at the Walmart distribution facility, per the pool report. 

Correction: Agri-Pulse incorrectly quoted U.S. Grains Council President and CEO Ryan LeGrand in Wednesday’s Daybreak on the level of recent corn exports. He said corn shipments last week were at an 11-month high. LeGrand also clarified that while North African buyers are considering the U.S. as a supplier, they have not begun importing.

Bill Tomson, Steve Davies and Ben Nuelle contributed to this report.