The coronavirus pandemic continues to overwhelm rural hospitals, upend the agricultural economy, and interrupt daily life as we know it, making it clear that family farmers and rural communities require additional support to withstand these trying times. In a letter
sent today to Senate leadership, National Farmers Union (NFU) President Rob Larew highlighted the many difficulties the organization’s members have been enduring over the last several months and recommended policies that would help ensure both their immediate wellbeing as well as their long-term recovery.
Most urgently, family farmers and ranchers need financial aid to overcome severe market disruptions and depressed prices. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus (CARES) “provided critical support for hospitals, family farmers, workers, and rural communities,” Larew noted that “in the absence of further assistance packages, net farm income is expected to drop by 12 percent this year,” a loss significant enough to potentially push thousands of small and mid-sized operations out of business. To prevent such a catastrophic outcome, Larew urged legislators to consider several emergency measures, including a boost in funding for direct assistance for farmers, programs that would facilitate the purchase and distribution of surplus food from farms to food banks, greater flexibility for farm credit programs, and the elimination of barriers to Small Business Administration (SBA) programs.
Financial assistance alone is not enough to keep farmers afloat; the markets, infrastructure, and services they rely on need to be fully operational as well. One of the most obvious examples is meat processing facilities, whose pandemic-related shutdowns and delays have had substantial consequences for ranchers and consumers alike. Small and regional meat processors “improve competition for ranchers and make our food supply chain more resilient to disruption,” but they often face financial and regulatory hurdles to increase processing capacity and expand sales. As a solution, Larew advocated a pair of bills that would ease the monetary burden of meeting federal inspection requirements and of paying federal inspectors working overtime or on holidays. Other sectors, including the biofuels industry and rural broadband initiatives, play a similarly critical role for agricultural livelihoods and, according to Larew, should receive comparable relief.
While farmers are concerned about their bottom line, they are also thinking about the health of their families and community members in the midst of the pandemic – particularly because “the daily number of new cases in rural counties has grown by 150 percent in the past month.” Larew notes that “the allocation of $10 billion specifically for rural providers as directed by the CARES Act was greatly needed,” but “between the cost of treating acutely ill patients and losing revenue from elective care,” many hospitals are hemorrhaging money. In order to keep rural facilities open, as the care they provide is even more crucial now than it was before, “NFU recommends a 20 percent rural benchmark in the Provider Relief Fund that prioritizes rural providers with the greatest financial need, those hit hardest by COVID-19, and those serving a large portion of at-risk patients.”
Farmers aren’t the only ones who are struggling; millions of Americans are out of work, resulting in a “steep rise in hunger and food security.” Food banks, though important, are not equipped to handle this influx in demand over a sustained period of time; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), on the other hand, can be scaled up quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively. Currently, as Larew writes in the letter, “for every meal provided through a Feeding America network food bank, SNAP can provide nine meals.” He encouraged the Senate to supplement the work food banks are doing by “providing a 15 percent boost in the SNAP maximum benefit and increasing the SNAP monthly minimum benefit from $16 to $30.”
Read the full letter here.
For more information on policy efforts related to climate change and agriculture, check out NFU’s climate resource center here.