Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) didn’t get everything he wanted to offer the U.S. Department of Agriculture so it could adequately support farmers with aid amid the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he said he plans to continue to work with other agricultural congressional leaders in efforts to increase additional authorization and further replenish the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) for USDA in the months ahead.
While speaking to members of the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting on April 27, Hoeven provided an update on where discussions currently stand and where he hopes to take them when the Senate reconvenes next week. As Congress was working with USDA ahead of the final passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security (CARES) Act, $50 billion was the level thought needed to provide an adequate amount of support. Hoeven, who serves as the agricultural subcommittee appropriations chairman, said the first Senate version had that level, but the final bill that was negotiated with the House was only a $23.5 billion boost. The CCC funds not only the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) but also farm bill programs and was used in 2018 and 2019 for Market Facilitation Program payments.
Recently, USDA announced the creation of the CFAP, which provides $16 billion in direct relief to farmers who have suffered losses due to market supply chain collapses and $3 billion for USDA to purchase fresh meat, dairy and produce from farmers to distribute to food banks, community and faith-based organizations and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.
Rep. Austin Scott (R., Ga.), a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, is leading a bipartisan effort to provide an additional $50 billion to USDA to continue the programs launched in the CFAP and expand relief efforts for farmers and rural communities as necessary. Hoeven said although there isn’t a similar bill introduced in the Senate, the bipartisan bill in the House provides a good foundation for negotiations moving forward in future funding.
“Clearly, we’ll need to do more,” Hoeven said, but added that the bipartisan work in the House is a “very good sign” that something along those funding levels could advance.
Livestock groups – including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. and the National Pork Producers Council – have voiced support for changing the currently proposed payment limitations of $125,000 per producer or $250,000 if a producer has multiple species. With “constrained” resources under the lower CCC borrowing authority, USDA likely is going to have set a limit, Hoeven said. Based on a $50 billion cap, that would be less of an issue. USDA will have to make sure everyone gets something, he said.
Regarding ethanol support, Hoeven noted that corn growers are part of that initial assistance offered under USDA’s CFAP, but nothing has been established for how to stop the hemorrhaging in the ethanol sector. He said when Congress reconvenes next week, that will be a topic of discussion. With demand down drastically, including air travel at what Hoeven said is a mere 4% of normal levels, reaching the 10% Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) level may be difficult.
In addition, Hoeven said with the $2 trillion in aid allocated in the CARES Act, Republicans believe it will be important to evaluate how those first funds are used before rushing to pass a fifth package. Hoeven said he plans to spend time with Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) to continue their dialogue and come together in how to approach the next steps.