Producers across the country are enrolling in the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, and they’re doing so with the help of employees that are either teleworking or back in the office for the first time in months.
Agri-Pulse recently visited with the leader of the agency charged with running CFAP signup, Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce. In the discussion, Fordyce discussed his impression of the first several weeks of CFAP signup, what changes USDA might make to the program, and when we can expect to learn more about the program’s future.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity.
Q: We're a few weeks into the signup for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, and that's done against the backdrop of the coronavirus, obviously, and a lot of social distancing and teleworking being done by Farm Service Agency employees. Signup started toward the end of May. Here we are now in mid-June. What can you tell us about how, from your perspective, that signup has gone?
Richard Fordyce: I think you make some really good points. We went right to work trying to put this program together and really rolled it out in what I would believe is record time for a national program, stood up by USDA and with the backdrop of the coronavirus. About that same time, maybe a week later, we went to an operating status of almost exclusively telework or remote working by our service centers across the country — 2,124 service centers across the country, almost 8,000 people that work on the program side scattered throughout those service centers.
So as we were standing up the program, a couple of things were always front of mind; it needed to be meaningful, it needed to be applicable to what was going on with the different sectors using the data that we had, but it also had to be something that would not be super cumbersome for producers to participate in or for our staff to be able to administer. We initiated signup on May 26 for the CFAP program. Here we are mid-June, a little over $2.8 billion has been made in payments, over 220,000 producers have applied. Doing that almost exclusively remotely I think has been quite an accomplishment for the agency. I have just the utmost respect for our staff that serve farmers and ranchers across the country in those service centers. The ability for them to adapt to more of a remote or telework status and be able to get this kind of work done in my mind is amazing.
We are an agency, or always have been historically, that's exclusively customer facing. We're in the service centers, producers come in, we work with them over the counter, they come to the desk, whatnot. And so for us to be able to kind of change our status to do this work remotely, we had to provide some additional equipment, we have also employed some new technology to allow for transmission of documents to get digital signatures. So kind of a transformation really for the agency in a pretty short period of time and we knew we needed to do it. We had a lot of work, whether it was ARC-PLC signup, different WHIP, WHIP-+ signups, acreage reporting, CRP that were happening, but we knew that the CFAP program was coming and we needed to get our staff equipped to be able to handle the response because we knew the response was going to be big and have the ability for the agency to be able to respond and be able to administer that.
Q: So now as we're a few weeks into the signup, any particular common themes, hiccups or problem-solving techniques that FSA employees across the country have needed to use for the signup?
I think a lot of questions around clarity. You know, this is a producer self-certifying program. So whether it's livestock sales, that inventory number that we're asking livestock producers for on a certain day, between April 16 and May 14, it's a self-certification and so we've tried very hard to provide definitions of what some of the things within the program mean. We're also asking on livestock and on non-specialty crops, does the producer still have price risk in those commodities? So we've worked very hard. We worked here within the agency, within the department, and then even reached out to some external stakeholders to help us come up with definitions and provide additional clarity. Obviously, if you think about the grain markets, you think about the livestock markets and all of the various marketing opportunities, those risk management tools, does that still allow price risk? I mean, is that producers still at risk on price? So we’re working through that.
This program is different than anything we've done before. We had Market Facilitation Program one, Market Facilitation Program two, which was different than one, and now the CFAP program that's different than those. Our staff and the producers that we work with want to do this the right way, so that's what we've really tried to do is provide that clarity to producers, provide that clarity to our staff.
Certainly a lot of questions around commodities that weren't initially in the program: What kind of data do you need? What do we submit through the NOFA process? We've had a lot of conversations with different groups that have reached out asking for further clarification. I think that was really our best approach for commodities that we didn't have complete datasets on. We didn't have good pricing information. The ability for the public to provide that, I think, is really important and probably about the only way that we could do it and have some comfort in the way that we're doing it.
Q: On the subject of your workforce, how are your county employees working right now? Are they still strictly teleworking or are they able to get into their offices?
So here at USDA, we've adopted a kind of a phased approach. These requests come from the local offices, so they know the situation on the ground, they talk and work directly with their local departments of health, and they are submitting that information to go to a phase one.
Phase one is we're allowing more of our employees back into the office, certainly practicing social distancing, periodic cleaning, those kind of things that we need to be doing. I think 1,700-1,800 offices now are in phase one, which really allows us to be a bit more efficient when we have more of our staff together in the office.
We have over 100 offices that now have been approved for phase two. That is actually where we will be taking appointments in the office, but that has to be done by appointment. We do a self-screening of the customer prior to them coming into the office. And then phase three is more of an open kind of posture.
We're moving in that direction. And again, I think the process works really well because it's our local county executive directors — or it might be district conservationists within NRCS, because a lot of times we are co-located — that are gathering the data from the local health departments. We utilize dashboards a great deal, whether it's CDC or Johns Hopkins, there's a number of dashboards that we utilize here at headquarters, but kind of getting that feel and that touch from the local perspective is very helpful. The process has worked really well.
Q: One of the things that you've had to do as part of this program was establish relationships with producers that previously may not have interacted all that much with FSA. How would you assess that has gone?
I think it's gone pretty well. We work very closely with the Office of the Chief Economist, Dr. (Rob) Johansson and his team, to be able to pull the data and do the assessments. We work very closely with (USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service). They have more of an intimate relationship with specialty crop producers. They have more data on them, a lot of times they're doing different inspections and so on with a lot of those producers. We partnered with AMS at the very beginning to talk through what's the best way to talk with folks and gain a better understanding of how to participate with the Farm Service Agency. We've conducted a couple of webinars that were highly attended. You know, the folks within AMS that are on the ground across the country also have this information and are communicating with folks.
We've got a number of resources on farmers.gov/CFAP. There's office locators, there are helpful hints on if you haven't participated with FSA before in a program — how do you go about doing it? Where is your local office? What are some things that you may need to participate in CFAP, and so I think we've done pretty well, that would be my assessment, and we continue to monitor that to make sure that there's not any unanswered questions out there. We stay in very close contact with our friends over at AMS as well, and check in occasionally to see what the feedback is that they're getting.
Q: You mentioned earlier in the conversation, some of these commodities that had applied for inclusion in the program, any insight as to which commodities we're talking about?
There's a lot of them. I don't know that I have seen very many of the submissions; I've talked to our team about looking through those. Certainly, we've gotten a good response through the (Notice of Funding Availability) process.Obviously it's a pretty large number that have submitted different data through that process. Our team is starting to analyze some of the initial submissions that have come in. Certainly we're not going to make a decision around inclusion or not inclusion, because obviously, they have opportunities to submit additional data up until June 22.
But that process is happening. As we get some of that information, we're starting to dig into it, kind of starting to disperse it to folks that can also help us within the department. I would answer that by saying there are several commodities that that have submitted data.
Q: You mentioned the June 22 application cutoff; When does USDA anticipate letting those commodities know whether or not they'll be included?
We're going to do it just absolutely as quickly as we can. When the CARES Act was passed, the Secretary said “we got to get this rolled out quick,” and he said I want to see payments starting to go out in May. We did initiate signup the 26th of May and got payments out. I think we actually officially got some payments out in May. So it's going to be the Secretary's expectation that we get through this data absolutely as quickly as we can. There may be instances where we're going to have to reach out to the submitter and ask additional questions. But we're going to do it very quickly. The team is having discussions now about, what does this data mean, does this require additional information? I'm always reluctant to give a timeline, you know, a date, but it will happen very soon after the 22nd.
Q: In terms of broad generalities, are we talking weeks? Months?
We want to do it in July, so that gives us two or three weeks to be able to analyze the data. Our expectation would be some announcements in July, there may be some that come earlier and some that come later depending on the analysis of the data and maybe actually asking additional follow-up questions.
Q: When USDA initially rolled out the program, there was talk of prorating some payments as you work to determine how much money was going to need to be distributed. When does USDA plan to make any kind of a decision on the rest of that prorated payment?
We constantly are looking at the data. We're looking at who's signing up under what categories, what are the numbers there. We have a fairly good idea for example, on the non-specialty side, because of other program enrollments, of what our expectation of numbers may be. We can get an estimate on the livestock side. The dairy side, obviously, we have numbers there as well. We know, fairly closely, how many dairy operations there are in the country. As we continue to monitor and manage those numbers, we'll kind of see where we think we are as far as signup.
As you mentioned, we have prorated the eligible payments at 80%. So a producer that enrolls in the program, once their payment is calculated, we are prorating that eligible payment at 80%. I don't know that I have a time frame, certainly it's something that we monitor. You know, again, that would be something that we would want to do as soon as we possibly could, once we have a good understanding of where we are with the signups, with payments, and obviously in conjunction with what the total budget is.
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Q: Pretty much everyone that said something about this program in its initial rollout, whether it be someone from Capitol Hill or a lot of folks from USDA, were saying there is sort of this expectation of potentially more money coming down the road. Should Congress make such a decision — and there's also the (Commodity Credit Corporation) money that comes available in July — is this program built in such a way that you think there's the ability to infuse new capital into it? Or would there be some kind of a separate rulemaking process necessary if there's more money coming?
From my perspective, the program is built to kind of augment the program. The CFAP program that we're implementing right now is looking at quarter one. So Q1 losses with some kind of projections into Q2. We’ve said from the beginning that this program is not making producers whole. It is providing, in my mind, meaningful assistance to producers that have experienced at least a 5% decline in price, or some of the disruptions within the supply chain and those things.
But, do you know what Congress does? I mean, I don't know what they're going to do. I think the program is designed to be able to be something that additional dollars could add on to, but again, this program is set to look at Q1 and a little bit of a look into Q2.
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