Stimulus bill expected to provide industry relief

Packer Interview - Tom Stenzel March 27
( File photo )

Congress and the Trump administration are sending $2 trillion in cash to help a U.S. economy that has been staggered by the coronavirus COVID-19 since mid-March, and the produce industry is anxious to see their share.

The Senate-approved stimulus package moved to the House March 27, where it passed by a voice vote. The bill will go to President Trump for his signature. 

According to a summary from the United Fresh Produce Association, the Senate bill includes: 

  • Funding of $9.5 billion under emergency declaration to support agriculture industries affected by COVID-19, including fruit and vegetable producers and livestock producers;
  • $14 billion to allow the Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) to replenish its borrowing authority, allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use up to $22.5 billion in Market Facilitation Payments and directing funds to Section 32 for produce purchases;
  • $8.8 billion for Child Nutrition Programs, including school meals, summer meals for children, and Women, Infants and Children feeding programs;
  • $15.5 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to cover an increase in participation due to unemployment;
  • $450 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program to distrbute emergency food assistance through food banks and other organizations. Of this amount, $250 million is to purchase commodities, and $150 million is for costs associated with storing and distributing them;
  • $350 billion for the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program, a Small Business Administration Loan Program for businesses with no more than 500 employees; and
  • $562 million for the Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, available to businesses with no more than 500 employees. 

“Together, these programs can go a long way to helping our country — and our industry — survive to continue our everyday job of feeding America,” United Fresh president and CEO Tom Stenzel said in an e-mail to members.
A complete summary of the Senate legislation is available online.

Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council, said in a March 27 statement that the NPC and the other leaders of the specialty crop industry are already working with USDA to target these resources in the bill.

“In particular, we want to ensure that growers and businesses impacted by the huge drop-off in food service have a safety net. This crisis may impact the entire 2020 season and the federal government needs to stand behind these operations.”

The $350 billion in expanded Small Business Administration loans should help industry operations retain employees, said Richard Owen, vice president of global membership and engagement for the Produce Marketing Association

Owen said one of the provisions of the loan program is giving funds to help compensate employees that had to be laid off during the crisis, provided companies bring those employees back to work.

“That could be very significant to agriculture and to the fresh produce industry,” he said.

In addition, he said the $9.5 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding for producers, including fresh fruit and vegetable growers, is important. While the details are yet to be worked out, Owen said the program should help farmers get back on their feet.

Growers cope

Because school has been canceled, some farm workers who have children have to stay home to watch them, said Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association.

“If you’ve got both parents working for one company down here, now one of the parents has to stay home and watch the kids,” he said. 

Galeazzi said TIPA is working with other associations to make sure growers receive H-2A workers when they need them.
Texas was kicking off its onion season in late March and will have peak volume for about three months, with watermelons around the corner.

“This isn’t like a box of widgets that we can come back to in two months and it’s still there,” he said.

Growers may have only about 80% of the workers they normally have, he said.

“What we’re really worried about is if these numbers start to draw down, if people start to get sick or if people are unable to come to the (work) because they have a situation at home with loved ones or young children,” he said.

Fresh produce imports and exports are generally moving without interruption, Owen said, and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Customs and Border Protection are maintaining regular services. 

 

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