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More Questions than Answers about Covid-19 Relief for Small-Scale Farmers in Local and Regional Markets

May 4, 2020

Ed Yowell, Chair, & Stephanie Armstrong, Intern, SFUSA Food and Farm Policy Working Group

On March 27, the bipartisan, two trillion-dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed by the President. This was the third aid package from Congress meant to sustain businesses, individuals, and families during the economic disruption caused by Covid-19.

In CARES, Congress provided $23.6 billion in Covid-19 relief for farmers and ranchers, including $9.5 billion intended to support “producers of specialty crops, producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools, and livestock producers, including dairy producers.”  On April 17, the USDA announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), the administrative manifestation of CARES, that would take several actions to assist farmers, ranchers, and consumers in response to Covid-19.

What We Know

CFAP consists of two components: $16 billion in loss-based direct payments to commodity growers, specialty crop farmers, and livestock and dairy producers; and $3 billion in direct purchases of meat, dairy, and specialty crops from producers for distribution to emergency food providers through the new Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

While USDA has not indicated how the funding will be allocated, the following estimates have been widely reported (including by Senator John Hoeven of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee):

  • $9.6 billion – livestock and dairy producers
  • $3.9 billion – row crop producers (i.e. corn, soybeans, cotton)
  • $2.1 billion – specialty crops (i.e. fruits, vegetables, nuts)
  • $500 million – other crops (i.e. hemp, horticulture, goats, sheep)


What We Don’t Know

Currently, there are more questions about CFAP than answers.

Seemingly, producers who can demonstrate loss will be eligible for direct payments, but it is unclear how much from both programs, direct payments and the food box program, will go to diversified producers and farmers selling into local and regional markets. In the case of direct payments, it is unclear how the program will work for these producers.

The USDA has not confirmed the allocation provided by Senator Hoeven.  However, it appears that the focus will be commodity-based.  Despite the intent of Congress, USDA has not addressed publicly the extent to which funding will be dedicated to diversified farmers selling into local and regional markets or how they will be incorporated into commodity-specific programs.

The USDA has not indicated that the design and calculation of CFAP direct payments will factor in these farmers’ operations, markets, and prices.  There is no assurance that these “non-traditional” farmers, selling directly into local and regional markets, will not be precluded effectively from benefitting from USDA assistance programs built around “conventional,” commodity farming models.  Unfortunately, some of the producers most impacted by the direct market disruptions of Covid-19, and most in need of relief, are small-scale, beginning, and socially disadvantaged producers. These tend to be the least familiar with USDA programs or to have experienced difficulty or discrimination in past efforts to access federal support.

As of now, it appears that CFAP may not accommodate, nor target funds for, farmers who sell into local and regional markets, including diversified farmers, organic farmers, family-scale livestock farmers, and historically underserved farmers, including farmers of color. This leaves the possibility that funding will go more readily to larger, more resourced, corporate, commodity farm operations practiced in dealing with USDA programs.

What We Must Do

We must ensure that the justifiably rapid implementation of CFAP does not preclude any group of famers impacted by the massive market disruptions caused by Covid-19, including, as was intended by Congress, local and regional producers supplying local farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.  Now is the time to make sure that CFAP does not repeat the mistakes of the Small Business Administration’s Covid-19 response.

Join Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and other Senators in urging the USDA to target CFAP Covid-19 relief provisions to reach local farmers.    The Senators specifically urged USDA to support local farmers by:

  • Adjusting the CFAP payment calculations to better reflect the business models of local producers;
  • Amending the covered time period to better reflect when local producers experienced losses; and
  • Developing a robust and inclusive outreach plan to ensure all local food producers — including those with limited internet access and those for whom English is not their first language — are aware of the benefits available to them under CFAP.

Help send our message of concern to the USDA!  Tag the USDA on social media using the hashtag #dobetterUSDA.

  • Share stories about farmers who are at risk of being missed by CFAP.  If you are a small-scale farmer or rancher, tell YOUR story!
  • Ask questions to highlight gaps, issues, and concerns about CFAP and local producers’ operations and business models.
  • Share suggested solutions about local producer CFAP outreach and access, covered period, and payment calculation.

Visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Take Action page to learn more and find resources to help make sure CFAP works for all farmers.