OMAHA (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack did not offer a timeline to farmers Friday regarding when USDA would be releasing frozen aid funds or announcing the next direct-aid programs to producers that have already been passed by Congress.
Vilsack spoke Friday in the closing general session to participants in the virtual Commodity Classic event. At least some aid programs for producers were frozen for review when President Joe Biden took office. Vilsack, who was confirmed last week, said the department continues looking at those programs while also waiting for Congress to pass the latest national aid package being debated now.
The secretary said previous aid packages have helped "some but not all of those in the supply chain" receive aid to get through the crisis. USDA continues to conduct a review of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) and its different forms that were crafted under the Trump administration. USDA is completing the analysis, but there is no specific date for when relief will be released or new forms of aid will be rolled out.
"I expect and anticipate, within the next several weeks, we're going to be in a position to let folks know at least primarily what our thoughts are as we go forward with these COVID relief packages," Vilsack said.
The secretary noted as USDA considers its program review, the department also is watching as more aid for USDA will come from President Biden's $1.9 trillion "American Rescue Plan," that was being debated in the U.S. Senate on Friday.
"So we wanted to make sure that we understood and appreciate the full range of need and the full range of resources that might potentially be available before we made any decisions about how best to allocate those resources," Vilsack said. "But we know that it's important and we know that people are waiting, and we're going to try to get some answers to folks as quickly as we can."
The aid bill in the Senate provides more than $5 billion for USDA to focus on the food supply chain and pandemic response. The bill also includes a specific carve-out of more than $1 billion in farm-loan assistance that would go to socially disadvantaged farmers. The aid is geared to provide up to 120% of loan relief to Black farmers for USDA direct and guaranteed loans.
Vilsack touched on the issue of direct aid for minority farmers, saying USDA has not address the "cumulative effect of discrimination over many, many decades and the fact that it has put some farmers significantly behind their counterparts.
"So we will be spending some time at USDA trying to figure out creative ways to essentially create greater equity in what we do at USDA in providing better opportunities as well for socially disadvantaged farmers who have struggled," Vilsack said.
Republicans have criticized the loan aid, stating it will lead to claims of reverse discrimination. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., shared an article on Facebook about the aid for Black farmers, stating, "What happened to equal protection under the law? This is wrong and un-American."
There also remains aid in the $900 billion package that passed Congress in December that remains held up in USDA's review. That includes a $20-per-acre payment for non-specialty-crop producers, based on 2020 planted acres. Another provision of that bill provided nearly $1 billion in support for dairy producers as well. The bill also included a provision for livestock producers that reimbursed up to 80% of losses due to euthanizing animals when the supply chains were backed up last year.
Part of the evaluation now is looking at what the demand is and determining who has not been helped, or not helped adequately enough, he said. He pointed to industries that have been relatively left out of earlier aid packages, such as the biofuels industry and certain specialty crops.
"I suspect we will find with the amount of money that we have that it will be difficult to meet all of the needs that already have been articulated and those that are still coming in," Vilsack said.
USDA continues to sign up farmers for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program -- Additional Assistance (CFAP-AA). Sign-up will continue even as payments for that program remain frozen.
Applications for CFAP-2 closed in December and USDA has continued providing those payments, which amount to $13.27 billion. Corn, cattle, "sales commodities," soybeans, milk, wheat and hogs remain the largest commodities receiving payments under the program.
While the CFAP also is drawing attention, USDA also is reaching out to producers to make their selection for the traditional commodity programs -- Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and the Price Loss Coverage (PLC). Just under 1.3 million producers have enrolled for 2021, but typically about 1.7 million farms enroll annually. The enrollment deadline is March 15.
Separately on Friday, USDA extended its application deadline to April 9 for producers to apply for the Quality Loss Adjustment (QLA) disaster aid. The program was set up to help producers who suffered quality crop losses in 2018 and 2019 disasters. USDA has received about 8,100 applications under the program so far.
Speaking at Classic, Vilsack also talked about the need for more markets. Citing again that nearly 90% of farmers require off-farm income, Vilsack said USDA needs to put a higher emphasis on different markets. Coming from his last job as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Vilsack said he gained greater appreciation that as much as 30% of U.S. agricultural products are exported. To expand those numbers, more staff, promotion and attention are needed in key agricultural markets.
"We're going to focus our attention and resources at USDA in providing assistance to allow for greater presence in those key markets, and we know what those markets are," he said.
This week, Vilsack also spoke to the agricultural ministers of Canada and Mexico. Wheat and dairy access remain issues in Canada, while the U.S. is becoming more concerned about Mexico's stance on genetically engineered crops.
The secretary also expressed confidence about continues trade sales to China, "because China needs what the U.S. can provide and China needs a lot of what we can provide."
While exports to China reached a record in sales, the secretary said numbers were still similar to trade in 2017 before the tariff battles began. Over that time, Vilsack said the U.S. has lost market share in China as well. Sales are strong "but they are not where we need them to be and they are not where we want them to be."
There is also a need to diversify sales "because we saw the consequences of that when we did have a disruption in the relationship with China."
Talking about "open and transparent markets," the secretary said there are growing worries about consolidation in several agricultural commodities. One solution is to expand processing facilities nationally, and USDA is going to look at helping invest in those projects.
"We learned during the course of COVID that our supply chain can easily be disrupted," he said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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