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Emergency bailout program is a start, but family farms will need more

The term “supply chains” comes up frequently in reports about medical equipment, industrial manufacturing and even toilet paper. Supply chain disruptions also provide an explanation for the suffering and anxiety hitting farmers during the coronavirus pandemic.

The sudden closures of schools and restaurants, along with the emptying of hotels, cruise ships and company cafeterias knocked out major customers of milk, meat and produce that farmers rely upon. Grocery stores and food banks often run short of those commodities, but farms cannot pivot instantly to selling or donating their wares to anyone who needs them. In many cases, food banks don’t have the infrastructure to accept and store massive donations of fresh items. All this has led to dairy farms around the country dumping milk and other perishable goods.

The Trump administration last week announced a $19 billion emergency assistance program for farmers and ranchers. The payments – limited to $125,000 per commodity and $250,000 per individual or entity – may be just enough to keep some farmers afloat, but one-time checks will not go far in solving the many challenges facing farms in 2020. As the federal government shapes future bailout packages, for businesses large and small, it needs to make sure that farmers get their share.

The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers, plus $3 billion for the government to purchase meat, dairy, fruit and vegetable products. Most of the food purchased will go to food banks and others who feed the needy.

A story in The News on Sunday detailed how the economic “pause” in New York has taken a toll on agriculture businesses, from dairy and horse farms to vegetable growers and wineries. Farms find themselves in the same boat as many other businesses, who are struggling with how to forecast their futures. Planning is integral to farmers’ ability to turn a profit. (They don’t call the yearly forecast book the Plumbers Almanac.) Animals need to be fed, watered and cared for; crops require planting, harvesting and bringing to market. One lesson that Covid-19 has taught us is how little we know. Will restaurants, movie theaters and bookstores be open in time for the Fourth of July? Christmas? No one can say.

Another source of unpredictability magnified this year is the availability of seasonal workers. Many farms rely on workers who come to the U.S. on H-2A temporary visas from countries in Central America and the Caribbean. Reports say many have had a harder time crossing the border this year than in the past, and the cancellation of most international flights has also put a curb on travel.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is a senior member of the Senate’s agriculture committee. Boozman and other senators recently sent a letter to the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments, asking them to allow more flexibility for H-2A visa holders this year. The letter requested increasing the maximum time for H-2A workers to stay in the country, allowing H-2A employers to share workers among their farms and streamlining the visa interview process. The Trump administration should act favorably on those requests and not let political messaging about border control get in the way of helping American farmers.

The $3 billion allocated to buying farm commodities that can be reallocated to food banks is a smart part of the federal program. New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher pointed out the importance of food distribution to those who grow it as well as those who depend on it.

“Like most small businesses, New York’s farm families are trying to cope the best they can while they continue to make sure food production doesn’t stop,” Fisher said in a statement. “The USDA announcement is an investment into food security for this country.”

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