Pressure is mounting on USDA not to limit the payments that individual producers can get through the Trump administration’s COVID-19 relief package. According to information released by a key senator, USDA has been planning to cap the payments at $125,000 per commodity per individual farmer or $250,000 for all commodities. 

Several organizations say that would undermine the intent of the $16 billion in payments, which are supposed to compensate producers for the impact of the market disruptions caused by the national response to the pandemic. 

Some 126 Democratic and Republican House members led by California Democrat Jimmy Panetta and Idaho Republican Mike Simpson signed a letter to President Donald Trump on Thursday in opposition to payment limits. 

Why farm groups say it matters: The National Milk Producers Federation says the $125,000-per-commodity cap would limit aid to dairy farms that produce more than half of all U.S. milk. 

Rachel Gantz of the National Pork Producers Council says the caps would leave "many of our producers – those who have made major investments in hogs – behind and will do long-term damage if not addressed soon to a pork production system that is the envy of the world.”

Other opponents of the caps include the American Farm Bureau Federation, Western Growers Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. 

We’ll be watching: Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Ag Committee. She was asked Thursday what she thinks about eliminating payment limits for the aid package, and she said she wants to talk to USDA about the issue. 

“Given the circumstances, certainly the USDA has flexibility” on the issue, she said. 


NCBA also concerned about April 15

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association also sounded off on the reported April 15 date for a decline in assistance. In a letter to Perdue on Thursday, NCBA said that “would result in many producers deriving almost no real relief from these funds.” 

According to information released by North Dakota GOP Sen. John Hoeven, the payment rate will drop sharply for losses incurred after April 15. 

“We have some real concerns about that because we’re still seeing mounting losses,” NCBA lobbyist Ethan Lane told Agri-Pulse. He says producers need to know how much they’ll get from the program.

University of Minnesota economist Marin Bozic says the drop in coverage strongly suggests USDA is planning an additional aid package to supplement post-April 15 losses.

USDA looks for help with $3B food giveaway

USDA is moving ahead today with its ambitious plan to distribute $300 million in surplus meat, produce and dairy products to the needy, using commercial distributors that have been hammered by the shutdown in restaurants and food service. 

The Agricultural Marketing Service will issue a request for proposals today that will include food safety requirements that producers will have to meet. Companies interested in distributing the household-size food boxes will have until next Friday to submit detailed proposals to USDA. USDA will award contracts two weeks from today. 

During a webinar for members of the United Fresh Produce Association, AMS officials said the goal is to deliver the boxes as widely as possible around the country but conceded it’s unlikely that every region will get equal amounts.

Take note: There’s no setaside in the program for distributors who work with local or small farms. However, applicants will be asked how they plan to engage with small, local and regional farms, the officials said.

Reality check: To give a sense of the scale of this project, AMS has purchased $1.5 billion worth of food for USDA feeding programs since the fiscal year started last October, according to a Farm Bureau analysis. 

OSHA confirms it’s addressing meat workers

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has confirmed that it plans to issue guidance in coming days for protecting meat and poultry plant workers from the coronavirus. 

The confirmation comes as unions and the workers they represent call for more PPE and testing at meat and poultry plants throughout the country, more than a dozen of which have closed or experienced slowdowns because of workers testing positive.

The United Food and Commercial Workers said Thursday 10 of its members who worked in meat plants had died. Read our report here.

Take note: Progressives are increasingly calling for more protections for packing plant workers and farmworkers. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, is urging Congress to ensure paid leave protections for employees, enact stricter workplace safety standards, and expand unemployment insurance to all farmworkers. 

“These facts of daily life make it difficult, even impossible, for farmworkers to maintain social distancing and proper sanitation,” CAP says.

China makes second big U.S. beef purchase

There was some concern that the relatively large sale of 1,500 metric tons of U.S. beef to China earlier this month was a one-off, but USDA is reporting another sale that’s nearly the same size.

The new sale of 1,400 metric tons is more evidence supporting expectations from USDA and industry analysts that China is importing more beef because pork is in short supply and U.S. exporters will benefit.

China technically lifted its ban on U.S. beef in 2017, but Chinese trade restrictions kept U.S. exports to a minimum. Most of those restrictions have been removed, thanks to the “phase one” trade deal and China is now offering exemptions to its stiff retaliatory tariffs.

A recent report from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service notes “many tariff exclusions for U.S. beef have been granted” by the Chinese government.  

CWA ruling seen fueling lawsuits

Thursday’s Supreme Court decision finding that groundwater pollution can be regulated under certain circumstances is likely to lead to more lawsuits. 

“There will certainly be litigation that follows this,” said American Farm Bureau Federation counsel Travis Cushman. He said AFBF is pleased with the 6-3 decision because it rejected a test set up by the Ninth Circuit that would require a permit if pollution were “fairly traceable” to a point source.

The high court found a Clean Water Act permit would be required in cases where there is “the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.” But that would depend on EPA considering factors such as the time it took for the pollutants to reach a navigable water — a lake or a river, for example.

He said it: “While additional help for America’s farm families will almost certainly be needed, this bill does extend a critical interim lifeline to farmers and ranchers who are struggling.” – The top Republican on the House Ag Committee, Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, on the $484 billion COVID-19 relief bill.