Friends of Family Farmers

A new bill in Congress could provide small and medium farms that grow specialty crops with direct federal aid payments.

Help may be on the way for direct-market farms during COVID-19 — that is, if Congress makes a move.

Last week, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., introduced the Local and Regional Farmer and Market Support Act, aimed at helping farms that other aid programs have overlooked.

The bill is similar to USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, known as CFAP. But it’s smaller — about $1 billion versus CFAP’s $16 billion — and it targets farmers CFAP missed.

The bill, if passed, would create a payment relief program for farmers that sell direct-to-consumer — mainly in local and regional markets. It would also funnel $25 million into a grant pool to help farmers with direct marketing expenses, another $25 million to help farmers markets and similar organizations pay for infrastructure changes like public health installations and $50 million in targeted assistance to minority farm communities and farmers of color.

To qualify, a farm must get 25% or more of its sales income directly from consumers. This includes a variety of hybrid models, including farmers markets, CSAs, regional cooperatives and local food hubs.

Advocates say the bill is crucial to help farmers in direct-to-consumer markets.

Although many small-scale and organic farms are technically eligible for CFAP aid, trade association leaders say the law does not serve these groups well. That’s because USDA calculates CFAP payments based on national average prices. Farmers with premium markets say CFAP does not cover their losses and pays them mere pennies on the dollar.

“The original prices per pound proposed in CFAP were often laughable to farmers in specialty, local, regional and direct markets,” said Amy Wong, policy director at Friends of Family Farmers, an Oregon grassroots nonprofit.

One premium-market potato grower, for example, lost $20,000, but calculated CFAP would only reimburse him $800, she said. He decided his time would be better spent farming than applying.

Instead of following CFAP’s price index model, the new bill would base payments on a farm’s historic revenue.

Eric Deeble, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said his organization has been advocating a revenue-based approach all along, even when CFAP was introduced. Deeble didn’t get his way last spring, but he said he hopes this bill will pass.

“Conversations among legislators so far have been very, very good — constructive,” he said.

But a policy analyst familiar with the bill who did not wish to be identified told the Capital Press that Congress appears to have higher priorities than this bill — debates over the next federal relief package, unemployment benefits and the impending election.

This bill, the source said, is likely low on legislators’ list of concerns. And because Congress hasn’t exhibited much bipartisan cooperation of late, it looks a bit like a lame duck session even before the real lame duck session after the election.

Nevertheless, farm advocacy groups continue to press legislators to move the bill forward.

“I’ve heard from so many small farms in need all across Oregon, and I’m hopeful this will pass for their sake,” said Wong of the nonprofit.

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