Federal COVID-19 farm aid extended to specialty crops

For the Basin Business Journal | August 6, 2020 1:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Specialty crop producers are now eligible to apply for assistance under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), according to an announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on July 9.

“During this time of national crisis, President Trump and USDA have stood with our farmers, ranchers, and all citizens to make sure they are taken care of,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “We are adding new commodities, as well as making updates to the program for existing eligible commodities. This is an example of government working for the people – we asked for input and we updated the program based on the comments we received.”

CFAP was passed as part of the over $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act by Congress in late March, not long after the COVID-19 epidemic began in the United States.

USDA has expanded the program to help apple, potato and blueberry growers “because USDA found these commodities had a five percent or greater price decline between mid-January and mid-April as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the department said.

In addition, specialty crop farmers whose crops spoiled because they either couldn’t sell or couldn’t harvest them can also apply for payments under the program, USDA said.

“Apples and potatoes are two huge economic drivers for Washington state, and our producers have experienced significant damages,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Yakima. “Thank you, Secretary Perdue, for listening to our concerns, making these adjustments, and prioritizing America’s agriculture industry during these difficult times.”

Apples and potatoes were not originally included in the list of crops eligible for payments related to marketing losses. As specialty crops, neither has historically been included in the government price support or supply control programs instituted in the 1930s and regularly revised over the last century, though USDA commodity purchases for the School Lunch Program have provided some kind of help for fruit and vegetable growers.

According to Newhouse Communications Director Elizabeth Daniels, both the Yakima representative and Sen. Maria Cantwell pushed hard for the inclusion of apples and potatoes in the list of crops eligible for federal aid as a result of closures prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

In a letter to Purdue dated July 7, Newhouse and Cantwell cite USDA Agricultural Marketing Service data that state potato growers saw the price for a 50-pound carton of potatoes fall to $13 from $17.50, a 26 percent decline, in March and April.

“Over 1.5 million pounds of fresh potatoes-for-processing and potato products remain in storage, leaving many growers with no ability to sell their 2019 or 2020 crop, and many contracted growers have seen their contracts canceled,” they wrote.

In the letter, Newhouse and Cantwell also note that prices for apples and pears have fallen anywhere from 6 percent to 25 percent, with state growers looking at possible losses of $190 million this year.

“Many other specialty crops, such as mint, berries, wine grapes, and others, are struggling to stay in business,” they wrote.

Mint and blackberries have been added to the list of approved crops, but wine grapes have not, according to the USDA web site.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.