OMAHA (DTN) -- As Tom Vilsack was sworn in Wednesday afternoon as Agriculture secretary, he already faces a request from his home-state congressional delegation asking to expand COVID-19 relief aid to include custom cattle feeders.
He will also face some calls to unfreeze some aid to producers and also to push for states to vaccinate various workers in agricultural and food sectors of the economy.
The Iowa congressional delegation -- five Republicans and one Democrat -- wrote Vilsack on Wednesday highlighting the exclusion of custom cattle feeders in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).
Vilsack was sworn in Wednesday afternoon by Vice President Kamala Harris after the Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Vilsack 92-7.
Iowa lawmakers are seeking aid for custom feeders as USDA continues to conduct a review of CFAP. The department froze some parts of CFAP payments -- dubbed "CFAP Additional Assistance" or (CFPA-AA) -- on Jan. 27. USDA continues taking applications for the program through Friday, but so far, it's unclear when CFAP-AA payments will be released.
The Biden administration froze payments under CFAP Additional Assistance just a week after outgoing Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Jan. 15 had updated payment calculations for a range of commodities and expanded eligibility for certain contract livestock producers, which included producers who raise "broilers, pullets, layers, chicken eggs, turkeys, hogs or pigs under contract in 2019 and 2020."
CONTINUES TO BE UNDER REVIEW
In a statement to DTN, a USDA spokesperson said that CFAP-AA continues to be under review, and USDA anticipates making a decision "in the weeks ahead." The spokesperson pointed out that payments under CFAP-2 continue to go out, but sign-up for that program ended in December. As of Monday, CFAP-2 has paid out $13.2 billion.
"FSA is eliminating the deadline on CFAP-AA and continue to accept applications during the evaluation period so that, once a determination is made on the direction, we are ready to act," USDA stated to DTN.
In his statement on Vilsack's confirmation, Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he and Vilsack may not see eye-to-eye on all agricultural issues, but they could find "solutions to rural America's most pressing needs, one of which is targeted COVID-19 relief."
Thompson added, "I implore Secretary Vilsack and the Biden administration to unfreeze the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program funds immediately to better assist our farmers, ranchers and producers who have been hit hard by the pandemic."
CUSTOM CATTLE FEEDERS LEFT OUT
The Iowa delegation highlighted that Perdue had expanded producers eligible under CFAP-AA but had left out custom cattle feeders. The Iowa lawmakers wrote: "Custom feeding is an important part of Iowa's cattle industry. Custom cattle feeders provide services including: yardage, feed, health services, marketing, and more for livestock that are owned by someone else. In Iowa, nearly all custom feedyards are owned and operated by farm families. Many of these custom cattle feeders have been unable to conduct business as usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with yards sitting empty or at low capacity. As a result, custom cattle feeders are losing revenue and Iowans are suffering. Simply put, the plight of custom cattle feeders in Iowa is very similar to those in the swine and poultry sectors."
Matt Deppe, CEO of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, told DTN that his office had received several calls from custom cattle feeders, especially after USDA opened sign-up for pork and poultry producers who raise livestock under contract. That provided the group with a call to action to reach out to members of Congress. Deppe said, in his conversations, uncertainty in the markets caused people to hold back on delivering cattle to custom feeders in 2020.
"So folks that normally would be paying for that service to feed cattle and fill those pens out were more reluctant because of the situation with COVID-19, and you've got business operations where they sat idle, or have sat idle, for a more extenuated type of timeline," Deppe said.
The Iowa delegation stated in its letter USDA had set precedent for eligibility by allowing contract growers who raise swine and poultry to be eligible for aid by demonstrating a drop in income from 2019 and 2020. Those contract poultry and swine producers also must prove they are not entitled to the share of sale proceeds for the livestock and poultry. "Custom cattle feeders could easily meet both eligibility requirements," the Iowa lawmakers wrote Vilsack.
USDA's spokesperson stated to DTN that members of Congress, farmers and organizations have pointed to gaps in previous rounds of assistance. "What we're doing now is listening and gathering feedback so that we get help to as many producers as possible without focusing on one group or geography at the expense of another."
PROGRAMS TO RELEASE
Beyond lifting the freeze on existing CFAP enrollment, USDA still has multiple programs to release from the aid package approved by Congress in December. That aid package provided payments of $20 an acre to non-specialty crop producers. Livestock producers are also provided up to 80% reimbursement for euthanized animals during the pandemic.
USDA on Wednesday issued an update on the department's work to initiate the president's national strategy for COVID-19 response. Starting Thursday, USDA will expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) online purchasing in eight states. USDA also has extended a moratorium and forbearance on USDA home loans and frozen debt collection on USDA's farm loans as well.
DEMANDS FROM OTHERS
Demands from others also are coming quickly. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union also highlighted the need for USDA to expedite vaccines for workers in grocery, meatpacking, food processing, and agriculture -- which are considered essential workers for the country's food supply.
As of earlier this month, UFCW highlighted that essential workers in agricultural and food-processing and grocery industries were not considered a priority for vaccine access in more than 35 states. UCFW cited that 78,900 grocery, meatpacking and food-processing workers have been infected by COVID-19, and at least 397 of those workers have died.
UFCW President Marc Perrone called on Vilsack to encourage governors and industry to work together with the union to expedite vaccine access. Perrone also said the Union believes Vilsack will boost food-aid programs such as the SNAP for families.
"Our country's frontline workers and the millions of Americans they serve deserve nothing less, and we believe Secretary Vilsack will help enact these critical national priorities," Perrone said.
During Thursday's committee meeting for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Jewel Bronaugh -- President Joe Biden's nominee for USDA deputy secretary -- praised a resolution and action order introduced that stated NASDA support for efforts to secure personal protection equipment and access to vaccines for "farmers, workers and rural communities to maintain a continual food supply in the face of a global vaccine" as an action item for the agriculture directors.
On Wednesday, meatpacking company JBS USA stated about three-quarters of its workers are expressing interest or signing up prior to the vaccine being distributed, according to Dow Jones.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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