By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
POCATELLO – Idaho’s four-member congressional delegation is joining other members of Congress in asking the Trump administration to eliminate the payment limits included in a $19 billion ag relief program announced by USDA April 17.
That request to do away with the payment limitation of $125,000 per commodity is supported by many agricultural organizations around Idaho and across the nation.
The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program includes $16 billion in direct support payments based on actual losses for farmers and ranchers who have been negatively impacted financially by the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, the program currently has a payment limit cap of $125,000 per commodity, with an overall limit of $250,000 per farming entity.
Those payment limits would severely restrict the program’s effectiveness for many family-owned farms and ranches across the nation that have lost markets due to a slowdown in the foodservice industry because of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a news release from the office of Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
“Unfortunately, the direct payments included in the CFAP are contingent on payment limits that do not take into account the cost of agricultural labor for many commodities,” the release states.
Leaders of Idaho’s potato and dairy industries said basically the same thing following USDA’s April 17 announcement of the ag relief program.
The $125,000 payment limit is skewed toward smaller producers and will do little to help the average Idaho dairy that is struggling with extremely low milk prices directly related to the coronavirus outbreak, said Idaho Dairymen’s Association Executive Director Rick Naerebout.
The average sized dairy in Idaho is much larger than the typical dairy in many other states.
With the current payment limitations, “Our average dairy in Idaho will come nowhere near close to getting the assistance it needs to allow it to continue operations,” Naerebout said.
Reaction to the relatively small payment limitations compared to the actual financial pain producers are feeling was disbelief among many national and state farm organizations, said Pat Kole, the Idaho Potato Commission’s vice president of legal and government affairs.
Most Idaho potato farmers had already purchased seed for the 2020 season before the virus reaction gripped the nation and since then many have had their contracted acres significantly reduced as a result of a major slowdown in the foodservice industry, Kole said.
As a result, many spud farmers are facing significant financial losses and the $125,000 limit won’t do much to help them, he added.
“There are going to be farms that aren’t going to be able to survive this unless (the direct payment) program is dramatically restructured,” Kole said.
American Falls farmer Klaren Koompin has seen his contracted potato acreage cut by 50 percent this year because of the impact the outbreak has had on potato processors that supply restaurants and other foodservice channels.
A $125,000 payment may soften the blow somewhat, “But it’s such a small amount,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to chew through $125,000 in today’s farming environment.”
Simpson has co-led a bipartisan letter signed by 126 members of the U.S. House of Representatives that asks the Trump administration to eliminate the payment limits before the final details for the CFAP are announced.
Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, also signed on to the effort and Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch are part of the same effort in the U.S. Senate.
In Simpson’s news release, Crapo said that while he applauds “USDA’s efforts to get much-needed financial support to our producers, I urge the administration to consider the impacts that payment limitations will have on Idaho’s farmers and ranchers.”
“The slowdown in the foodservice industry has decimated markets for crops that are already planted and have nowhere else to go,” Simpson said in the release. “In Idaho, agriculture is 20 percent of our economy and limiting the amount of assistance we can provide farmers and ranchers simply won’t be enough to save their operations.”
Simpson also said he stands “ready to work with my colleagues in Congress to provide USDA the resources they need to help the agriculture community without payment limitations.”
Idaho farm groups applauded the state’s congressional delegation for going to bat for agriculture on this issue.
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Bryan Searle, a potato farmer from Shelley, said in the news release that the ag industry is grateful to Congress and the Trump administration for coming to the aid of farmers who have suffered financially as a result of the virus outbreak.
“Now we need to make sure this aid gets to those farmers and ranchers and that the intended benefit is not impeded by artificially low caps and limitations as currently proposed,” Searle said. “We have heard from our members and industry leaders that the proposed payment limits don’t come close to providing producers with the financial relief they need to deal with the impacts of the coronavirus.”
According to the letter signed by 126 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, agricultural economists estimate the pandemic has caused more than $13 billion in harm to the cattle industry and $5 billion to the pork industry, “with many billions more in injury to dairies, fruit, nut and vegetable producers, and the horticulture and floriculture industry.”
“As is true for many other small businesses across the country, this financial harm comes through no fault of these farmers and ranchers, nor is it the result of typical market forces,” the letter states. “As such, these relief payments should aim to indemnify as much loss as possible without restrictive payment limitations.”
National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation that the NPC views the direct payments provided through the CFAP as a down payment.
“We also want (USDA) to … go back to Congress and get more money to provide the relief that farmers need,” he said.