With $8.75 billion, USDA nears bottom of pandemic aid list

Source: By Chuck Abbott, Successful Farming • Posted: Thursday, September 2, 2021

Since it revamped its pandemic relief programs in March to “reach a broader set of producers,” the Agriculture Department has committed $8.75 billion in assistance to farmers and ranchers, including $750 million for the dairy sector and up to $1 billion for contract growers of pigs and poultry. Only a few items remained on its list for implementation on Tuesday, among them $700 million for biofuel producers.

The USDA has been silent about a proposal, made in the last week of the Trump era, for “top up” payments to hog farmers of $17 per head. The proposal was swept up in a regulatory freeze during the change in administrations. Farm-state lawmakers periodically prod USDA on the matter. Two House Republicans said this week, “Unfortunately, USDA has given no indication on if or when these payments will be made.”

A comparatively small $580 million has been disbursed to producers since the USDA reopened its application window for pandemic aid at the start of April, according to weekly totals for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), the major outlet. Some $24.4 billion has flowed through CFAP since May 2020, when payments began.

In mid-June, the USDA earmarked $700 million for biofuel producers and said it would act in the next 60 days on “support to timber harvesters, biofuels, dairy farmers and processors, livestock farmers and contract growers of poultry, assistance for organic cost share, and grants for PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Biofuel payments and the PPE grants are the two largest items on a USDA list of “programming … still planned for implementation.” The USDA said it “will continue to focus on filling gaps in previous rounds of assistance and helping beginning, socially disadvantaged, and small and medium-size producers that need support most.”

Beside biofuels and PPE, USDA said it planned up to $20 million in organic cost-share assistance and an estimated $50 million in additional assistance for small producers who lost money when they sold hogs on the spot market during the pandemic. The USDA mentioned the forthcoming aid to small producers at the same time Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on July 13 an estimated $50 million to livestock and poultry producers forced to cull their animals when COVID-19 outbreaks temporarily slowed or shuttered slaughterhouses.

“We don’t have anything to report on this unfortunately, but we’ve been tracking it with the USDA,” said the trade group Renewable Fuels Association when asked about the $700 million for biofuel producers.

A USDA spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on a timeline for biofuel aid or the “top up” payments for hog farmers.

Congress gave the USDA permission in a December 2020 coronavirus package to provide aid to biofuels producers for market losses due to COVID-19. Demand for biofuels plunged in tandem with the steep decline in gasoline demand when the pandemic struck. Ethanol plants reduced production or shut down operations temporarily.