Apple growers seek to change relief aid eligibility criteria

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YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Apple growers in Washington state have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reconsider its eligibility requirements for direct payments through the coronavirus food assistance program.

The U.S. Apple Association and 11 grower groups, including the Washington Apple Commission and the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, sent a letter Tuesday to the agency arguing the program’s eligibility criteria is flawed, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported.

Growers must show they suffered a sales price loss of at least 5% between Jan. 15 and April 15 to qualify for payments, but industry officials have argued the percentage is based on data collected at a dozen terminal markets even though most of the apple sales happen outside those markets.

Industry groups have said more than 99% of apple sales are to supermarket chains and mass merchandise retailers.

Northwest Horticultural Association President Mark Powers has said the agency is willing to accept additional pricing data from industry groups. The association is a Yakima organization that represents fruit industry public policy issues.

According to industry data from the Washington State Tree Fruit Association and other individual shippers, there were sales price losses from 7% for the Washington state shippers to about 25% for one of the individual shippers elsewhere in the U.S., association president Jon DeVaney said, adding that it is clear that apple growers meet federal criteria.

DeVaney expects those sales prices to drop even more as the state has had to manage a record amount of product, caused in part by export loss due to COVID-19 and ongoing trade disputes that have decreased shipments.

As a result, more apples have remained in storage, DeVaney said, adding that apples from last year’s crop may end up being thrown away if they can’t be sold before the fall harvest.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting additional comments through Monday and is expecting to respond in July. Until then, fruit companies have made some revenue by selling to government food and nutrition programs.

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