Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says USDA wants to provide relief from the COVID-19 crisis to eligible farm sectors “sooner rather than later,” but the department will have to wait until this summer at the earliest to distribute an additional $14 billion in aid.

The recently enacted $2 trillion economic stimulus bill known as the CARES Act earmarked $9.5 billion in COVID-19 relief for livestock producers, specialty crops and local agriculture systems and provided $14 billion more to replenish USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. spending authority. 

Asked about the $9.5 billion, Perdue told reporters on Wednesday that USDA’s “goal is to get it done sooner rather than later, but we want it done very inclusively as well.”

He indicated that USDA also would tap an additional $6 billion that remained in the CCC account before the $14 billion replenishment. 

“We’re meeting daily on that (COVID-19 aid package), getting data, listening to all the stakeholders within the various commodity groups, getting their ideas, talking to members on the Hill,” Perdue said. 

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, who talked to Perdue on Sunday, says there should be an announcement in the next week or two about the payments. “They’re trying to do this relatively quick,” Peterson told constituents in a telephone town hall later Wednesday.

Livestock groups and the produce industry have made detailed proposals for spending the money. 

The dairy industry, for example, wants USDA to pay farmers to cut milk production and providing forgivable loans to processors to keep buying milk. Produce industry groups want up to $5 billion in payments to compensate growers and dealers for losses they suffered when restaurants, schools and colleges suddenly closed because of the crisis. 

The additional $14 billion provided for CCC can't be spent before July, according to a statement provided by the department: “The CARES Act provided a $14 billion replenishment for the CCC as reflected in the June 2020 report of its financial condition.  Therefore, the replenishment cannot be secured until after June 30, 2020 when the financial statement is completed.”

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Perdue said the department also would seek to increase its milk purchases, another request of the dairy industry, but that it can be difficult to distribute milk through food banks. Many have no or limited cold storage. 

In 2019, it took the department all year to distribute $50 million in fluid milk. “The challenge is scale and scope and the amount of oversupply in the dairy industry” amid the COVID-19 crisis, Perdue said. 

Steve Davies contributed to this report. 

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