Many sectors in agriculture were struggling before the coronavirus pandemic and in its wake some are reaching crisis points, including dairy producers. This afternoon, Vermont at-large Democratic Congressman Peter Welch held an online meeting with the state Farm Bureau to discuss the situation and what federal help is needed.
Farm Service Agency State Executive Director Wendy Wilton told participants of the e-meeting that there has been $16 billion dedicated under the CARES Act for producer price support including $2.9 billion for dairy farmers. “There are a number of other commodities that will also be addressed. We don’t have final rules. That is being considered at this time but my expectation is that we’ll be enrolling people at the end of May and first payments are expected to go out by the Secretary by the end of May.”
Vermont Congressman Peter Welch is Co-Chair and Founder of the Congressional Dairy Farmers Caucus and a member of the Specialty Crop Caucus. He says the collateral damage from social distancing that slowed the economy has led to a devastating impact on agriculture. But he says the $2.2 trillion in coronavirus relief passed so far by Congress has been inadequate for farmers. “My view is that the federal government has to play the role of financial backstop to try to help our entire economy. But the amount of money and the aid that’s been going to farmers has been wholly inadequate. We’ve got to do something I think much more dramatic to be able to help farmers be able to survive.”
Restaurants and schools are closed, constricting farmers’ key markets. Cows must be milked daily but due to an oversupply some milk has been dumped. Vegetable growers have left produce to rot. Massachusetts 2nd District Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. Speaking on WAMC’s Congressional Corner, he says he wants hearings on the distribution system for agricultural products. “The idea that we are dumping milk, that we are destroying livestock and we are letting vegetables rot when we know that there are places in this country where they are needed but we don’t have the distribution capacity to get them there is just ridiculous. I mean the Secretary of Agriculture should’ve put money into an emergency distribution account and sent trucks out to wherever there is an excess and take whatever they produce and get it to where ever it needs to go.”
During his Wednesday COVID-19 briefing, Republican Vermont Governor Phil Scott said he’s very concerned and noted that the state agriculture secretary is working on a state-level relief program. “I’m very concerned about the farmers themselves. I’m concerned about our food supply. We need to protect that. I don’t want to over-promise but we’re not ignoring this and they’re too valuable to us. They’re part of our tradition and culture and we want to do everything we can to protect them because they protect us. One of our basic needs is our food supply. They’re essential to us and so we’re going to do everything we can to support them.”
There is not a specific state aid program yet. The Vermont Community Foundation provided funding to help the Vermont Agency of Agriculture cover costs to get some milk and yoghurt to food banks rather than being dumped. The agency reports overall demand at food banks in the state is up 60 percent.