The U.S. Department of Agriculture will open applications for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program on Tuesday, May 26, which will deliver $16 billion in direct payments to farms hurt by the pandemic.
Farm Service Agency branches will handle applications.
"It's been a collective breath of relief. Things will continue to be tight, but this will mitigate those first-quarter losses," said Shelby Myers, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Many industry leaders have expressed excitement about how the relief package will help agribusinesses. But some said the program's structure is flawed and excludes thousands of farmers and ranchers in crisis.
The assistance program outlines some exclusions clearly. Ineligible commodities include sheep more than 2 years old, eggs and layers, soft red winter wheat, hard red winter wheat, white wheat, rice, flax, rye, peanuts, feed barley, Extra Long Staple cotton, alfalfa, forage crops, hemp and tobacco.
Northwest wheat growers say they are concerned because hard and soft red winter wheat, along with soft white wheat, account for the majority of wheat grown in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. State and national wheat associations are calling on USDA to make all wheat classes eligible for aid.
"We are struggling with cash flow like all other farmers and ranchers throughout the nation," Clint Carlson, Oregon Wheat Growers League president, said in a statement.
Some major agricultural sectors, like poultry growers, went unmentioned.
"Poultry is the big one on our minds and the minds of our members," said Myers.
The American Farm Bureau, she said, is talking with USDA to understand why poultry producers are not eligible for aid.
Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Association, told the Capital Press his members will not submit comments yet requesting inclusion, but will seek aid in a possible phase four relief package.
Other sectors, including aquaculture, cut flowers and nursery products, were also excluded.
"For the moment, nursery and greenhouse growers find themselves in a no-man’s land, on one hand described in the rule as 'other eligible crops,' but on the other hand, not actually yet eligible to apply for relief at this time," Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort, said in a statement.
A USDA spokesman said the agency encourages ineligible producers who believe they've suffered a 5% or greater price decline from January to April 2020 to submit comments.
The Federal Register, which allows people to comment on proposed rules and plans, opened Thursday for public comment on the food-assistance program. Critics say this leaves little time for farmers to demonstrate need.
But even after applications open, said Myers of the Farm Bureau, USDA and Farm Service Agency branches are eager for input and will be "receptive to any information."
Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said his organization is seeking an easier way for members to comment instead of using the Federal Register, but said this is "far from a criticism of USDA."
Stone told the Capital Press that association leaders had a "great conversation" with one of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's senior staff members recently about industry needs.
Whether cut flower growers will get financial help is still uncertain, experts say.
Erin McMullen, board member for the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, told the Capital Press the board was scheduled to meet Friday to decide what to do during these "unprecedented times."
"I'm really worried about flower farmers right now," said Sophie Ackoff, co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Program critics say direct exclusion is not the only problem. Even eligible farmers face other barriers.
Although small-scale and organic farms are eligible, trade association leaders say the program may not serve these groups well because payments are based on national average prices and not actual losses. While payments based on price may work for conventional and large farms, farmers with premium markets say the money won't cover losses.
Ackoff said a small-scale grower lost $20,000 on premium-market potatoes, but calculated the food-assistance program would reimburse him only $800. He decided his time would be better spent farming than applying.
Ackoff said young farmers, especially first-generation and minority farmers, are likely to miss out on aid. She said they are more likely to be unfamiliar with Farm Service Agency operations, to grow for premium or niche markets that won't show price changes even though losses were great and tend to have limited or no support staff.
According to USDA statements, the program will operate on a first-come, first-serve basis similar to the Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Myers of the American Farm Bureau encourages farmers to track every price and purchase date, keep inventory and familiarize themselves with required documents in advance at https://www.farmers.gov/cfap.
She understands the fear and frustration some farmers feel with the program's structure, but she said overall it's a big win for agriculture.
"My advice is, as always with programs this complicated, be patient with the people trying to put this together at USDA," she said. "Hopefully, we'll all get through this together."