What an upside-down time we are living in with the pandemic overturning all of our normal lives. Our industry has been battered with this virus but we continue to grow food for our nation—all thanks to your hard work. In Washington, Western Growers has been trying to do everything we can to support you. We have been working to make sure you can access guest workers if you need them. We have been trying to make changes to the Payroll Protection Program to make it work better for you. And we have been trying to secure more federal resources for you. It’s this last piece that is very important and deserves the spotlight. Currently, there are resources available to the ag community, and we are trying to make additional resources available as the ongoing crisis continues.
In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was implementing two new programs to provide producers money to offset losses incurred due to the pandemic. Under the first program, USDA is purchasing excess produce and distributing that product to those in need through the Farmers to Families Box Program. This program directly helps Americans who are hungry while also shoring up markets in the specialty crops industry and providing income to producers. So far, several billion dollars have been spent. Western Growers has been concerned and is pleased that USDA is ensuring that produce contractors in this program are now all PACA licensed.
In May, USDA also announced that it would be providing growers with direct financial payments to help offset losses related to COVID. As designed, growers can submit applications for federal dollars up to $750,000 to offset losses incurred. Over the course of the last few months, we have worked on your behalf to improve the program. First, we have been pushing to expand the list of fruits, vegetables and tree nuts that are eligible for payments. USDA, in response, has added roughly 90 new crops to the list of eligible produce crops. We have tried to eliminate USDA rules that impede producers getting funds; in response, USDA has recently changed a regulation that prevented certain S-Corps from getting money. As currently constructed, the program applies to losses incurred before April 15; we are working with the U.S. Congress and the Trump Administration to expand eligibility beyond that date and for the rest of the year. We are also working with USDA to better advertise the program and ensure that every fruit, vegetable and tree nut grower in America is aware that the program exists.
New Resources for Worker Safety
We know that the health and safety of your workers is absolutely critical to each of you; without your workers you can’t bring food to America’s table. Creating a safe workplace has been challenging during COVID especially as guidance evolves. In that regard, Western Growers has been reviewing guidance from federal and state officials and recently worked with academics to provide a webinar series on what that information means on a practical level with real-world, on-farm explanations of Centers for Disease Control guidelines. We know, however, that farmers need access to additional testing for their farmworkers, as well as funding to quarantine those who test positive for COVID-19 and to isolate individuals who have been exposed to others who tested positive for COVID-19. Some farms have been fortunate to find available tests and are paying for their workers to be tested, but in rural parts of the country finding tests for potentially hundreds of workers can be very difficult with testing results being long delayed. Furthermore, the expense of widespread and frequent re-testing is beyond the financial reach of many farms, most of which are family-owned and operated.
Other farming operations have taken the next step and are renting hotel rooms to isolate or quarantine positive and exposed employees, if such accommodations are available. However, it is cost-prohibitive for most farms to provide 14 days of isolation/quarantine lodging. Compounding the costs of testing and housing are additional COVID-19 expenses, including masks and gloves, disinfectants and sanitizers, touchless thermometers, and other administrative and engineering controls. Most farmers have some of these supplies on hand and are providing them to their employees but not all stock up and the list of supplies and other engineering changes grows as we learn more about the novel coronavirus.
Our work in Washington D.C. has been focused this summer on securing additional resources for you to offset the increased costs associated with all these expenses. In that regard, we have pushed for federal dollars to be available to reimburse producers who have spent money already on these costs. We are supporting efforts to create tax credits for these costs. We are also supporting efforts to create direct financial aid to pay for costs going forward. In essence, we are taking all of the above approaches to make sure that you have the resources you need to ensure worker safety from the coronavirus.