COVID-19 Ag Relief Helps Small And Specialty Farms But Not Ethanol

Apr 22, 2020

Farmers who grow many different types of crops and raise livestock will receive direct payments from the United States Department of Agriculture through $16 billion of CARES Act relief money.

USDA has announced it will also spend $3 billion to purchase fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meat and other food, which it will then distribute to those in need through food banks and other community groups. 

But in announcing these relief efforts, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was blunt about the fact that there’s nothing directly for ethanol.

“Frankly, at this point there’s just not enough money to go around,” he told reporters in a telephone press conference. “The demand from all of the sectors was even more than we could accommodate.”

Iowa Farmers Union President Aaron Lehman is not surprised.

“I think it shows a real neglect of the industry. This is not the first sign of neglect that we’ve seen from the administration,” Lehman said. He cited waivers granted to some small refineries exempting them from blending ethanol. “It’s not the first time we’ve seen it, but the fact that we’re not doing something directly to help out an industry that is so integral to Iowa agriculture … it’s really disturbing.” 

Ethanol production has been cut about in half during the pandemic with plants idled because people are driving so much less. 

“It is one of those industries that farmers really built from the ground up,” Lehman says, “so there’s a lot of farmer investment in these ethanol facilities. 

Lehman also says the key to a successful relief program will be ensuring that all farmers understand what help they are eligible for and how to access it.

“We want to make sure that farmers on the ground know how they can get help, and the help at least gets them to a place where they can make some good decisions on their farm continuing into the future.”

He says producers who sell at farmers markets or directly to restaurants have been hit especially hard and some of them may not be familiar with traditional USDA farm subsidy programs. They are included in the relief money, but Lehman says he’s hopeful an increase in direct farm-to-consumer sales, bypassing things like farmers markets that are closed, may help, too. 

“We have seen a consumer uptick in interest in connecting with local farmers. That’s good. And we hope farmers can take advantage of that,” he said, adding those relationships have potential to continue beyond the pandemic. 

On his own farm, Lehman said he was in the tractor Tuesday prepping fields for the corn, soybeans and oats he grows, both organic and conventional. Row crop farmers made most of their decisions about how much of which crops to grow before the pandemic and he says there’s not much room to change things now. 

Lehman also wants USDA to provide more transparency than it has in past bailout programs. He knows that working out the details of distributing so much money may slow down delivery of the first checks, but that’s okay with him. 

“The aid is certainly needed and farmers will put it to good use. But we know that there’s a lot of questions yet to be answered about how the program is going to be administered,” he said. “We’ve had two large programs the past two years dealing with trade, and there wasn’t a lot of transparency. There wasn’t a lot of public input, and in many cases, the aid did not get to where it needed to get on the ground.”

Perdue has pledged to get checks out “as quickly and expeditiously as possible,” saying he’s pushing his staff to get them sent in May.

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