Committee Focuses Aid on Black Farmers

Ag Provisions Will Be Included in Larger Aid Package

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The House Agriculture Committee met online Wednesday to approve and advance the agricultural and food-aid funding for the latest COVID-19 aid package under consideration in Congress. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The $1.9 trillion relief plan moving through the House of Representatives has roughly $16.1 billion in specific provisions for USDA -- mainly for nutrition programs -- but boosts in agricultural aid steered toward buying commodities or supporting minority or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday afternoon marked up agricultural provisions for the aid package.

A key part of the bill would boost food-aid benefits, which take up roughly $12 billion in the projected costs of the agricultural provisions. That includes a 15% boost in weekly benefits under USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for lower-income people and those out of work. The higher benefits would run at least through the end of September.

The aid package is moving through Congress under a budget reconciliation process that would allow the Senate to pass the bill without going through its typical 60-vote procedural approval. Both the House and Senate will pass their own versions of the aid package. On Tuesday, the language in the Agriculture and Nutrition title of the FY2021 Budget Reconciliation Act was released. On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee took up the bill.

While both chambers of Congress are advancing parallel aid bills, the legislation will be stalled next week as both chambers will be on Presidents Day recess until the week of Feb. 22.

The text includes the $5 billion bill to help farmers of color that Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.; Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.; and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., released on Tuesday and additional money for SNAP.

Stabenow said in a news release late Tuesday that she had partnered with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Scott and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., who has jurisdiction over child nutrition programs, "To ensure the bill includes vital support to help families put food on the table, strengthen the food supply chain for farmers, provide critical support for farmers of color and fund rural hospitals."

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he is proud of the work that went into the bill, which will provide assistance for farmers, rural communities and "the most vulnerable among us."

"This bill is a steppingstone to the vision President (Joe) Biden has set forth to get our country back on track. Each dollar included in this legislation plays an invaluable role in doing just that," Scott said. "I am pleased to be a part of this effort to put our Black farmers in a better position after suffering the impacts of this pandemic and the inability to receive equal access to USDA programs over decades."

CRITICISM OF THE BILL

Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Pa., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, criticized the agricultural portions of the reconciliation bill because of the lack of Republican input, saying the process "really stinks." He also noted the rush to pass a new bill when the committee doesn't know what the current need might be for agricultural or food aid. Thompson said a large chunk of funding from the last aid package passed in December still hasn't been released for programs.

Thompson called on Scott to jointly call on the Biden administration to unfreeze payments to farmers under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) which were frozen shortly after Biden took office. Thompson said the funds should be unfrozen "so they can provide immediate assistance to farm families."

National Farmers Union noted of the bills that Black, indigenous and people of color, "BIPOC farmers tend to receive less government support than white farmers -- which has made them particularly vulnerable to the challenges of the pandemic." NFU added the bill would "help them withstand those challenges."

ADMINISTRATION SUPPORT OF PACKAGE

The Biden administration also signaled that it supports the $5 billion package to provide aid to farmers of color. Matt Herrick, the USDA communications director, told DTN that former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Biden's nominee for Agriculture secretary, and the White House also support the bill.

Vilsack believes debt relief for farmers of color is essential in the final legislation "so they can fully participate in the agricultural economy," Herrick said.

The development of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act said that the idea of helping farmers with debt relief originated in the Biden-Harris transition team's attempt to deal with systemic racism in agriculture.

After Vilsack was nominated and met with Black farm leaders, he reported to the team that debt relief was the priority of Black farm leaders and that taking action on the issue was a priority for him. And while Vilsack's nomination is still pending, the team of lower-level officials who are already in place at USDA moved the measure along quickly, the source said.

PROVISIONS OF BILL

The bill includes $3.6 billion for USDA to continue to help the food and agricultural sector supply chains. This could include providing assistance to processors, non-profits such as food banks, or farmers for equipment or other supplies, and ensure more worker-protection aid in provided as well.

The bill also dedicated another $1 billion in aid to community-based organizations and 1890 Land Grant and other minority-serving institutions that work with Black, indigenous and other farmers of color on issues of land access, financial training and heirs property issues. That includes establishing an equity commission and a legal center to provide advice for minority farmers.

Among the provisions, the bill also would boost USDA loan assistance for Black farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers. A provision in the bill would pay for up to 120% of total outstanding indebtedness on USDA loans or loan guarantees that were on the books as of Jan. 1.

The bill also includes $800 million more for the Food for Peace program to buy U.S. commodities for international food aid.

Another $500 million would go to fund the Community Facility Program to help rural hospitals and local communities get out both vaccines and food aid to people.

To deal with small meat and poultry processors, the bill sets aside $100 million to help with COVID-19 related backlogs. Among the provisions would be discounted inspection fees during overtime or holiday hours for packers that qualify as a "small establishment" and a "very small establishment."

Several provisions taken up by the House Agriculture Committee were also part of a larger, more sweeping bill introduced by six Democratic senators -- the Justice for Black Farmers Act. That bill has an array of policy proposals in it that likely will not be taken up until the next farm bill or mandatory livestock reporting bill.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act was crafted by Booker, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Tina Smith of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

PACKERS AND STOCKYARDS ACT PROVISIONS

Beyond the direct provisions for Black and socially disadvantaged farmers, the bill has several provisions to amend the Packers and Stockyards Act. The bill expands definitions of unlawful practices for forward contracts, including prohibiting packers from owning livestock more than seven days before slaughter. Packers would also be required to buy 50% of their daily livestock slaughter through spot market sales.

The bill would also prohibit packers from using certain business justifications to defend against discriminatory conduct -- contradicting language included by the Trump administration packer rule released last year.

Farmers also would not need to show "competitive injury" to pursue a case against packers in court. In poultry contracts, the bill also prohibits the use of the tournament system in poultry contracts with growers.

The bill would create a civilian conservation corps, known as the Farm Conservation Corps, that will provide job and vocational training in agriculture to young adults ages 18 to 29 coming from socially disadvantaged groups.

Members of the Farm Conservation Corps will work as on-farm apprentices, at no cost, on farms of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, beginning farmers and ranchers, and certified organic farmers and ranchers with annual gross farm income up to $250,000. USDA would be able to enroll 20,000 people in the program annually for the next decade.

DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom contributed to this report.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

Chris Clayton