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House panel chairman urges agriculture road map for pandemics

We can’t be ‘flying by the seat of our pants,’ Collin Peterson says

House Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson says constituents are asking why food is being destroyed as unemployment rises and food stamp enrollment increases.
House Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson says constituents are asking why food is being destroyed as unemployment rises and food stamp enrollment increases. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The federal government needs a plan for agriculture to address massive economic disruptions like those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, House Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson said Tuesday.

The Minnesota Democrat told reporters during a conference call that the House and Senate Agriculture committees need to assert their authority and address weaknesses he sees in the system. For example, he endorsed a boost in the Commodity Credit Corporation’s borrowing authority but only with congressional oversight conditions.

“We need to have a plan on the shelf with a way to deal with this stuff going forward so we’re not in the middle of a crisis flying by the seat of our pants,” he said.

Peterson said he wants greater committee oversight of the Agriculture Department’s distribution of federal aid to farmers and ranchers and its handling of surplus agriculture goods sent to food banks and pantries. He also said he doubted Congress would act in time to affect the USDA’s plan to make $16 billion in direct payments to producers who can show harm from COVID-19 related policies.

Peterson said he wants to do a thorough review of how the USDA moves food to low-income people    

However, he said lawmakers can still make statutory changes in oversight that would apply to future actions. Peterson said he supports an increase in the USDA’s borrowing authority for the CCC from $30 billion to $68 billion from the Treasury Department, noting that the $30 billion cap has been in place for more than 30 years.

Peterson said, however, that he wouldn’t support higher borrowing authority without a requirement that the USDA consult with and receive approval from the House and Senate Agriculture committees before using CCC money for emergency aid.

More funds, but with conditions

“We’re working on language about that. I guarantee you this, I’m not giving CCC or the secretary any more money unless we have a say about how it is spent. There’s not going to be a bill to give them $50 billion without any strings attached,” Peterson said, adding that he has spoken with Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., about the matter.

Peterson spoke to reporters the day after Senate Agriculture Appropriations Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he supports raising the CCC borrowing authority to $50 billion. Hoeven did not indicate if he thinks the USDA needs more congressional supervision in handling funds.  

Peterson said the USDA’s process for moving price-depressing surplus agricultural products off the market and into federal nutrition programs and food banks needs review, noting that he’s been fielding questions about why farmers plowed under crops like vegetables or dumped milk when 26 million people have become unemployed and amid growing enrollment in the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Compensation for slaughter

Peterson said he had even gotten a call from actor Richard Gere about the distribution problem. The chairman said the process seems to be a “damn bureaucracy that takes two to five months to get the stuff into the system. It’s unacceptable, and it’s not going to be the way it is when this is over with.”   

Peterson also wants to change the law to allow the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to offset livestock and poultry farmers’ losses when healthy animals are euthanized because of market conditions. The agency is authorized to pay indemnities when animals are killed because they are ill or to control the spread of animal disease as happened in 2015, when an estimated 50 million chickens and turkeys in commercial flocks were euthanized to contain H5N2 avian influenza.

Peterson is not the only Midwestern lawmaker concerned about the limit on APHIS’s ability to aid hog producers.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, along with other Iowa Republicans, including Sen. Joni Ernst, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Naig, signed on to a letter Monday to Vice President Mike Pence that included a call for payment for euthanized animals. Grassley said the letter went to Pence in his role as the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The Iowans asked for, among other things, financial help for farmers who euthanize their hogs and legal protection from lawsuits for the animal killings.

“We strongly urge that farmers are indemnified for their euthanized hogs, including costs associated with depopulation and environmentally sound disposal, to help preserve Iowa’s pork industry. Pork producers also need protection through legal immunity from attempts by activist organizations to penalize producers who are required to take these actions to protect the welfare of their animals,” the letter read.

Peterson said hog farmers in his Minnesota district will have to euthanize thousands of market-ready animals because pork processing plants are closed or operating below capacity. Peterson’s 7th District ranks among the top 10 hog-producing congressional districts.

The farmers, Peterson said, have few alternatives, especially when a hog gets over 300 pounds and is too large to be processed at plants.

Peterson said he and Minnesota Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, a former House member who served on the Agriculture Committee, will be present Wednesday when 13,000 hogs at a JBS USA plant are killed in Worthington, Minnesota. The plant is just outside Peterson’s district, and hogs from his district will be among those killed. The plant, which closed last week amid a COVID-19 outbreak among workers, is a hot spot for the disease in the state. 

Peterson said he does not think processing plants will be able to fully recover until workers are convinced that they can safely return to facilities.

“We want the plants open, but we don’t have the testing,” he said. “We’ve got to get the employees well, and we’ve got to get the testing.”  

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