Harvest time

Many sectors of agriculture are seeking help through forgivable Small Business Administration loans during the COVID-19 crisis, but the money is running out.

Farmers and agribusiness owners across the U.S. are racing to apply at banks, credit unions and agricultural lenders for small business loans that are part of a COVID-19 federal relief package — before the money runs out.

The Payment Protection Program, run by the U.S. Small Business Administration, authorizes up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to support payroll so small businesses can keep workers employed during the pandemic.

The program is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Congress passed and the president signed March 27 to stimulate a virus-crippled economy.

The aid comes at a critical time when farms — especially those wracked by lost profits from displaced restaurant and wholesale markets — are hurting, industry leaders say. But because demand for PPP loans has been enormous, the loan pool is quickly evaporating.

“We expect the money to run out by the end of the week unless Congress puts more in the system,” said Tom Van Hoose, president and CEO of the Farm Credit Council, the national trade association for 72 farm credit system lenders across the U.S.

Monday, the Paycheck Protection Program had already approved 880,000 applications totaling $217 billion, or 62% of allocated dollars, according to SBA figures.

Within just 36 hours of launching PPP, Columbia Bank, a commercial bank with locations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, received more loan requests than would typically be received in six to eight months and can handle no new applications, said a spokesperson.

“A lot of anxious farmers want to apply,” said Mark Hayes, spokesperson for the Farm Credit Council.

PPP loans are not just for agriculture. Across sectors, small businesses with fewer than 500 employees are eligible to apply.

According to SBA, businesses can apply for a loan up to 2 1/2 times their monthly payroll — enough to keep their workers employed two more months.

SBA will forgive all PPP loans if a business keeps all its employees on payroll for eight weeks and at least 75% of the loan is used for payroll. The remainder can be used for utilities, rent or mortgage interest. If a business breaks a requirement, the aid converts to a two-year loan at 1% interest.

Experts say non-agricultural lenders were typically first to get applications processed.

Hayes said this is because many banks and credit unions were already SBA lenders and could start immediate processing, while the farm credit system was new to working with SBA and “had a lot of government agency hurdles to get through.”

Van Hoose estimates only 20 to 25 of the 72 farm credit programs are ready to process applications.

“It’s been chaotic,” said Van Hoose. “Really, our lenders are just getting started right when the money is about to run out.”

The Farm Credit Council encourages farmers to consult with their local agricultural lenders, but said farmers with relationships with commercial SBA-lender banks should apply there first.

Although applications won’t be processed once money runs out, the Farm Credit Council encourages farms to apply anyway so they will be at the top of the queue if Congress approves more money later.

Van Hoose and Hayes say they hope Congress will recognize agricultural industry needs and increase loan resources.

“Farms have been hurting for a long time, and now they’re really hurting in this pandemic,” said Hayes. “This is timely assistance, but it’s a finite pool of money and I hope more help is on the way.”

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