Written by Pat Bradley for WAMC Northeast Public Radio on April 9, 2020
Agriculture is being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic as markets for all products tighten. Dairy farmers in particular have been hurt. Vermont Congressman Peter Welch discussed the situation with farmers and co-ops Thursday afternoon.
Cows must be milked every day and farmers incur daily costs regardless of what is happening.
Vermont Agency of Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts summarizes the current challenges dairy farmers face in a video on the agency’s home page. “You’ll see stories of farmers having to dispose of milk and cheese. This is happening across the country and some states are having to throw out produce. With the United States for the most part shutdown including key markets that deliver to food service, institutions, colleges and schools there is too much raw product and it can’t get to the table.”
Tebbetts joined Vermont at-large Democratic Congressman Peter Welch to discuss the crisis. Tebbetts says they are seeking short-term help from federal agencies. “We believe farmers should get direct payments to the facilitation program. We also think USDA should buy up additional dairy products for emergency distribution through the emergency food assistance program; reopen the Dairy Margin Coverage Program again, get farmers signed up for that would be good. And one of the things that we think that needs to happen to stabilize, just over the next four months, pay dairy farmers the cost of production.”
Congressman Welch says several of the small business provisions in the CARES Act excluded farmers. “One was the emergency loan of $10,000. Right now the Small Business Administration is taking the position that farms don’t qualify. We are working to change that. There’s a lot of support to change it. But in order for that to happen I think we’re going to need a provision, a statutory provision, that’s in the next CARES Act. Secondly, there’s the Payroll Protection Plan which does apply. And the question is whether it’s something that would be helpful to our dairy farms here in Vermont.”
During a Town Hall earlier in the day, New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik said she and other representatives are looking at several ideas to provide support to dairy farmers. “What we’re looking at with USDA is potentially a reimbursement mechanism for the milk that has to be dumped or activating what’s called USDA Section 32 to allow dairy purchases to go towards food banks and other feeding programs, which I think is a smart idea. And then there are other policy options that would incentivize producers to voluntary reduce production to reduce our excess supply. And I’m hopeful that this relief will be in a future legislative package because they are certainly going to need it.”
Welch adds: “This is about our local communities. It’s about our food source. It’s about nutrition. And we can’t have as an outcome of this pandemic the collapse of our local rural farm economy.”
The price farmers are paid for their milk has fallen steeply in only a few weeks according to Agrimark economist Catherine de Ronde. She expects the pandemic may lead to annual revenue losses of about $175,000 for the average Vermont farm.
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