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Stabenow says USDA could be flexible on COVID-19 payment limits

Direct payments must go to a broader cross-section of agricultural producers, Michigan Democrat says

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow syas the USDA has flexibility to address the fairness of its distributions to agricultural producers affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow syas the USDA has flexibility to address the fairness of its distributions to agricultural producers affected by the coronavirus pandemic. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee appeared open, but wary, Thursday to the Agriculture Department possibly raising the caps on the amount individual farmers and ranchers could receive from $16 billion in direct payments to offset sales and markets lost to COVID-19 economic disruptions. 

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow noted the USDA eased payment limits in 2019, when the department made trade-aid payments to farmers and ranchers. She has criticized the fairness of the distributions, saying that smaller farm operations and producers that grow specialty crops did not benefit.

Stabenow said the COVID-19 direct payments must go to a broader cross-section of agricultural producers than the Market Facility Program payments. Any changes to payment limits should not put some sectors of agriculture at a disadvantage, she said.

“Given the circumstances, USDA certainly has flexibility to address that,” Stabenow said during a conference call with reporters on Senate Democratic priorities for a possible fifth economic relief bill. “I’d certainly want to talk with them about that. We should talk about areas where they think it is needed.”

Under the COVID-19 program, the payment cap would be $125,000 per affected commodity or a maximum of $250,000 for a farmer, rancher or agriculture operation. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue outlined a $19 billion relief plan on April 17 for various segments of agriculture.

The bulk of the money will be distributed as payments to eligible producers and a separate $3 billion will be used to buy dairy and other surplus products that will go to food banks, faith-based operations and other organizations that feed low-income people.

Perdue said he knew some segments of agriculture would be dissatisfied, but said requests for aid exceeded available emergency funds provided by Congress.  

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and its state affiliates sent Perdue a letter Thursday citing a study it commissioned by Oklahoma State University economists. The study estimates $13.6 billion in total losses for the three segments that comprise the U.S. cattle industry as meatpacking plants reduce their intake of cattle because they are closing or slowing their operations after workers became sickened by COVID-19.

The slowdown means ranchers are still left with cattle to feed and other operating costs, the association said.

“NCBA recognizes the tremendous challenge of providing assistance to multiple segments of agriculture, particularly when funding is limited, and the need is great across all sectors,” the association wrote.

“However, payment limits bite hardest when commodity prices are lowest. It is imperative that cattle producers, regardless of herd size or business structure, be empowered to recuperate all losses in order to maintain consistent food production levels after this situation is resolved,” the letter read.

The National Pork Producers Council also has questioned the payment limits, noting that hog farmers will lose about $37 per pig because of problems in hog processing plants similar to those in beef.

On Thursday, House Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson wrote to Vice President Mike Pence and the White House Coronavirus Task Force asking for a plan to help farmers with pigs they can’t currently sell because of slowdowns at processing plants.

“Because of COVID-19, many of America’s pork producers have no access to processing and have no choice but to depopulate their herds,” the Minnesota Democrat wrote.

Peterson outlined several areas the task force should address, including standards for humane euthanasia of hogs and disposal of their bodies. 

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