US lawmakers from agricultural states push for $1B in aid


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Some New Mexico dairies have reported average monthly losses of more than a quarter-million dollars as fallout from the coronavirus outbreak mounts. Ranchers have seen cattle prices plummet amid supply chain problems, and farmers are starting to worry about potential labor shortages when harvest time comes.

Across the country, the agriculture industry has felt the sting of a collapsing market that has forced the dumping of excess milk, the discing under of potato crops and the destruction livestock.

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres-Small is among a bipartisan group of lawmakers from rural areas pushing legislation that calls for funneling as much as $1 billion in aid to states based on their contributions to regional and national food systems. The New Mexico Democrat says the aim is to stabilize food supply chains and lessen the economic impact on rural communities being hit by the shockwave moving through the agriculture sector.

“This pandemic has impacted every aspect of our rural way of life, but the federal response has not yet matched the severity of the crisis that rural communities are facing,” said Torres Small, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday announced details about how $16 billion in direct payments will be issued to farmers and ranchers impacted by the pandemic. Part of that will come from the relief package already passed by Congress and will compensate farmers for losses that occurred through mid April. Another pot of funding will compensate producers for losses due to on-going market disruptions.

Some lawmakers and agriculture groups have said the direct assistance will cover only a small portion of the losses.

Under the proposal supported by Torres-Small and others, the USDA would allocate funds to states and territories to address the additional logistical costs of getting food to consumers and keeping the agricultural economy moving as much as possible.

Supporters say the direct assistance to farmers will have more impact if additional losses can be avoided through intervention efforts. That could include compensating farms for donated food, building local processing facilities to improve access to products, and paying for protective gear, testing and treatment for farm workers.

In New Mexico, state agriculture officials are trying to link consumers directly with local producers and agriculture businesses through an online hub.

State Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte said the effort has grown out of the department’s work to connect growers with food banks or Native American communities in need of supplies. He said the plan is to keep growing the list of what’s available.

“Food access is an immediate and ongoing need, and we cannot afford any more loss of agricultural products,” Witte said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected agriculture in numerous ways, from supply-chain issues to product loss, and from processing capacity to financial instability, but in the end, people need food.”