Farm groups are appealing to the Agriculture Department to relax payment rules and extend the sign-up deadline for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, citing the lagging pace of payments to farmers. 

In a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Perdue on Friday, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Agricultural Retailers Association, Association of Equipment Manufacturers and numerous commodity groups also said that USDA needs to increase its outreach to growers. 

On Monday, USDA reported paying out $6.8 billion of the $16 billion budgeted for CFAP. The department started taking applications in May. USDA initially provided farmers with 80% of their eligible payment to make sure there would be enough money to go around. Officials have said recently that producers should be getting the remaining 20% that they are due. 

The letter said the 499,156 applications that USDA has processed account for only 24% of all farm operations and that several fruit and vegetable crops have had especially low sign-up. More than a third of dairy operations haven’t enrolled either, the letter said. 

USDA has paid out only 1% of what was expected on carrots, 2% on oranges, 6% on tomatoes and apples 10% on apples, the letter said. “Those numbers may indicate many farmers are not aware they qualify for CFAP assistance.”

The letter said that even commodities that have received large shares of the payments so far aren’t collecting anywhere near what was estimated. Hogs and pigs have received 20% of the estimated amount; upland cotton 49%; dairy 47%; soybeans 51%; the eligible wheat classes, less than 60%; corn 66% and cattle 69%, according to an AFBF analysis appended to the letter. 

A senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said on Agri-Pulse Washington Week in Review that he met a farmer this week who was unaware of the program. 

“We have a lot of work to do yet to make sure all of our farmers are connected with that,” he said. The farmer “was completely unaware that he should be reaching out to FSA (the Farm Service Agency), making application.” 

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In the letter to Perdue, farm groups also argued that the payment limits are unfairly dampening participation. USDA imposed a payment limit of $250,000 per person on the program. 

The letter also asked USDA to reconsider the eligibility rules and $250,000-per-person limit. Each owner’s share of an operation should be applied to the overall CFAP payment the farm is entitled to, not to the $250,000 payment limit, the letter said. 

For future payments, USDA also should ease the payment limit itself, the groups said, arguing that it disproportionately hurt specialty crop, diary, hog and cattle producers. 

USDA has an additional $14 billion available in its Commodity Credit Corp. account to make additional payments, and Congress is considering providing more funding as part of a new coronavirus relief package

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