Dec. 23 2020 09:17 AM

Relief package includes support for rural broadband, meat processing, dairy

The information below has been supplied by dairy marketers and other industry organizations. It has not been edited, verified or endorsed by Hoard’s Dairyman.

Wisconsin Farmers Union welcomes yesterday evening’s congressional passage of $900 billion in COVID-19 relief aid, which includes $13 billion for American farmers and ranchers. The final agreement includes a number of provisions that Farmers Union has advocated for in recent months, including support for local and regional food systems, mental health services for agricultural professionals, worker protections, rural broadband, dairy farmers and processors, and meat processing infrastructure.

WFU President Darin Von Ruden welcomed the short-term relief while also calling for long-term structural reform.

“Farmers Union pushed hard for additional support for farmers, and we are grateful for this short-term aid, which will be critical for those who have faced disrupted supply chains,” Von Ruden said. “We also urge Congress and the incoming administration to take on long-awaited structural reform in agriculture so we can be more resilient in the face of future economic shocks.”

The assistance will be distributed as a supplement to Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments. Approximately $11.2 billion will be in the form of direct payments and other support to producers and processors. Row crop farmers can expect to receive $20 an acre, and cattle producers will receive a top-up payment to cover gaps in initial CFAP rounds.

Von Ruden also applauded the package’s additional broadband funding, noting, “The shift to living in a virtual realm during the pandemic has shed even more light on how rural and low-income areas are at a disadvantage when it comes to broadband access.”

WFU was glad to see a withdrawal of language in the package that would have provided ‘blanket immunity’ to businesses whose employees contract COVID-19. “Given the scenarios we’ve seen unfold in meatpacking plants in recent months, we need to be standing in solidarity with the workers who process America’s food, not removing their protections,” Von Ruden said.

Von Ruden added that “The additional aid for dairy farmers is crucial to keep them in business until we can pass meaningful reform like supply management.”

Some highlights of the relief package:

· Dairy Support: The bill includes $400 million for a new Dairy Donation Program that will reimburse companies for the processing costs of donated products as well as the cost of the milk. Processors must submit donation plans for USDA approval, but companies can get retroactive reimbursement for projects that they’re already implemented. In addition, small and medium-sized dairy producers will be eligible to sign up for supplemental payments under the 2018 farm bill’s Dairy Margin Coverage program based on the difference between a farm's 2019 actual production and DMC production history.

· Meat Processing: The bill provides $60 million in grants to small-scale meat processors to help them qualify for federal inspection and begin to sell their product across state lines. The legislation also requires a report on the availability of financing for new processing capacity.

· Specialty Crop Block Grant Program: The package also earmarks $100 million to the Specialty Crop Block Grant program, which funds state assistance to fruit, vegetable and nut producers, and another $100 million to the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), which assists producers selling into local markets. The required applicant match under LAMP will be cut to 10 percent during the pandemic, and that can be an in-kind contribution.

· Biofuel Assistance: The bill authorizes USDA to make COVID-relief payments to biofuel producers hurt by the sharp drop in travel. The bill also extends through 2021 the $1.01-per-gallon tax credit for cellulosic biofuels and the $30,000-per-location tax credit for alternative refueling infrastructure, including ethanol blender pumps.

· Rural Mental Health: $28 million for farm stress programs administered by state departments of agriculture.

· SNAP Expansion: A 15 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and additional funding for food banks and hunger programs.