Confusion reigns over COVID-19 relief

Today’s supposed to be the first day that farms and other small businesses can start applying for those forgivable loans that are intended to help employers cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

The Small Business Administration released an interim final rule for the Paycheck Protection Program on Thursday. Some experts are raising concerns that revenue limits could exclude many farmers from participating.

There has been confusion around the country about whether farmers were even eligible at all for PPP. Agri-Pulse continued to get reports that some SBA field offices were telling farmers they ineligible. 

Keep in mind: The interim final rule doesn’t appear to exclude farms. And the president and CEO of the Farm Credit Council, Todd Van Hoose, says SBA officials have confirmed in briefings that farms will be eligible for the money.

But, but but: Veronica Nigh, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, has posted an analysis of PPP that suggests the value of the program to farms will be limited depending on how SBA implements the eligibility limits. Read her analysis here

Cut them some slack: In SBA’s defense, the agency has had exactly one week to get the $349 billion program up and running. 

Lawmakers, groups press SBA on second program

More than 80 House members and a coalition of farm groups are pushing SBA and the Treasury Department to allow farms to participate in a second, more conventional loan program, called Economic Injury Disaster Loans, or EIDL. 

A form for the program excludes farms. But in separate letters, the lawmakers and farm groups say Congress clearly intended to make the 3% loans available to farmers. 

“Many agricultural producers need access to this critical source of financing to help preserve their businesses and avoid further disruptions to our economy and food systems,” the farm groups wrote

Richard Fordyce, administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency, talks to employees from his farm shed in Missouri. 

Dairy presses for expanded signup

With farmers dumping their milk, Wisconsin’s agriculture department is pleading with USDA to purchase dairy products and reopen enrollment for 2020 Dairy Margin Coverage.

After nearly four years of low prices, 2020 was supposed to be a rebound year for dairy producers as prices began to rise earlier this fall. But Randy Romanski, interim secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, tells Agri-Pulse that isn’t the case anymore.

“The prices dropped substantially and now is the time where the Dairy Margin Coverage program would be an optimal tool to help mitigate some of those losses,” Romanski said.

Romanski urged Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to reopen 2020 enrollment for DMC in a phone call with state ag directors Thursday. He said Perdue told him he would inquire about it.

Keep in mind: It’s not just Wisconsin. The National Milk Producers Federation also is urging USDA to purchase dairy products and to reopen DMC enrollment. 

FDA seeks to reassure public

The Food and Drug Administration has released a 30-second Public Service Announcement telling Americans there is plenty of food, it’s safe, and there is no evidence to link food or food packaging with transmission of the coronavirus.

Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, is featured in the PSA.

Take note: Food and beverage industry groups have issued a six-page guide for how companies should respond when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. 

The bottom line: Any employee that has COVID-19 symptoms should be sent home and monitored, parts of the facility should be cleaned and disinfected, but operations do not need to come to a halt and food products do not need to be recalled. 

The document leans heavily on CDC and FDA guidelines.

Industry drafts coronavirus credentials

 Shelter in place orders are popping up all across the country to restrict movement, but agricultural workers and those who transport grains and other commodities need to get where they’re going. That’s why the National Grain and Feed Association, together with the American Railroads Association and the American Trucking Association, crafted a “standardized access credentials letter” for their members, NGFA President and CEO Randy Gordon said Thursday.

The Department of Homeland Security declined to put its logo on the letterhead, but did given its tacit approval to the document and state agriculture departments are being lobbied for their stamp of approval, Gordon said.

EPA defends enforcement policy

EPA officials say their decision to temporarily ease environmental enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic has been misconstrued. 

In a letter to lawmakers Thursday, EPA Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine said that “contrary to allegations you may have read, EPA continues to enforce the environmental laws.”

Under the policy released last month, EPA said it did not expect to seek fines for violations of routine monitoring and reporting requirements where EPA determines that COVID-19 caused the noncompliance.

Bodine’s letter comes the day after environmental groups petitioned EPA to issue an emergency rule protecting public health. “EPA is using an unprecedented public health crisis to justify allowing polluters to put our health at even greater risk — at a time when we most need their protection,” said Natural Resources Defense Council President and CEO Gina McCarthy.

USDA rapped over pork processing regs

A federal judge appears poised to order USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to re-examine its rule allowing an increase in line speeds at pork slaughter facilities.

In a decision allowing a case brought by plant workers to move forward, U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen in Minnesota said FSIS failed to address public comments on worker safety before issuing its final rule.

Adam Pulver, an attorney representing the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said the judge’s “conclusions that the agency's reasoning was insufficient and lacked rational explanation would seem to resolve the ultimate issue in the case.

He said it. “The pandemic’s impact on agriculture is coming in waves due to dramatic changes in demand, falling commodity prices and supply challenges.” – Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, arguing that farms should be eligible for SBA’s Emergency Injury Disaster Loans.