Even if you haven't been financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, by now you know several people who are. Shutdowns and quarantine regulations have had an impact on almost every aspect of the economy. Government agencies say they are taking steps to help people in the crisis, but some critics argue they're not caring for those who need it most. And that same argument has applied to how the federal government is approaching the latest farm bailout program.
The U.S. agriculture sector has felt the force of the spread of COVID-19. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced a $19 billion relief fund for farmers, including $470 million to purchase food surplus. At face value, that’s a hefty amount of money, but critics say this farm bailout isn’t necessarily going to farmers who are in dire straits.
Several problems are facing the farmers right now. Supply chain disruptions and the closings of restaurants and places reliant on food service companies such as school cafeterias have left many farms and ranchers with a surplus of produce, meat and dairy. The recession the novel coronavirus has triggered has also led to many farmers facing bankruptcy.
Farmers aren't the only ones in need, however. Many people across the U.S. have lost their jobs, landing them in poverty. These people need food but getting it when families short on cash, combined with the fact that food supply chains have been slow to adapt, has created countless challenges.
The difficulty in transporting supplies has been especially disruptive when it comes to food products with short shelf lives like milk or raw meat. Dairy farmers have had to dump tons of milk, despite the increased demand for it. People are going hungry, and farmers can't get food to them.
The USDA's latest relief fund is supposed to help struggling farmers and deliver food to hungry people. A multibillion-dollar farm bailout sure sounds like a lot of help, but you have to consider how it's distributed. Most of this money has gone to the largest farms.
Massive corporate farms employ a lot of people, but they're not the only ones out there. There are 65,000 dairy farmers in America, so if the USDA directs most of the farm bailout funds primarily to larger operations, tens of thousands of these food producers could be left out. That figure doesn't even include the meat and produce farmers who are also struggling.
The USDA's recent $470 million purchase of surplus foodstuffs does offer some assistance to those at risk of hunger. The agency has said it's doing the things it can to buy food and then transport it to those in need. But again, small farmers they are being left out of the equation – and they are often the ones that could provide food quickly to those who need it. In an interview with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes challenged him on how the federal government has distributed payments to farmers. Here’s how Purdue responded:
“The fact is, Lesley, most of our production in America is done by large farmers. That's just the way it happens. These are-- these are awards based on the production. And-- but we did try. We've got payment limits that cut people off.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made it worse for small farmers, according to Rachel M. Cohen of The Intercept. According to the reporting she and other journalists have conducted, the coronavirus stimulus package (also known as the CARES Act) has offered small farmers very little:
“… in the weeks following the CARES Act, farmers struggled to access any relief, as the agriculture aid stalled and many farmers found themselves ineligible for the Small Business Administration emergency loans. On April 10, 33 senators sent a bipartisan letter to Purdue, urging the USDA to follow the CARES Act and distribute federal aid to small farmers specifically. A week later, when the USDA finally announced how it planned to allocate the $9.5 billion from the CARES Act, it appeared that no money would be reserved specifically for small farmers.”
The crisis has hit farmers and USDA employees alike
The result is a lack of support for smaller independent farms, which need more help anyway. Monetary aid isn't the only thing farms need, either. Agricultural workers require medical personal protective equipment (PPE) to stay safe, but the USDA doesn't cover that.
The USDA hasn't even provided PPE to its own employees, around 200 meat inspectors who have contracted COVID-19 as of press time, according to one trade publication. As harvest season approaches, many farmworkers say they do not have the personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading. That puts thousands of workers' health at risk.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, the evidence suggests more small farms will go out of business. The pandemic is taking a toll on the sector, especially on independent workers. Agriculture itself will eventually outlive the coronavirus, and some farmers are adapting quickly to the new reality they face; the data, however, suggests we’ll see more farmers go into bankruptcy; many farms will disappear altogether.
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