May 14, 2021

Federal Affairs Column: COVID-19 Wanes but Relief Efforts Continue

Last year around this time, I wrote about the COVID-19 crisis. Now, a year later, I write about it again. However, rather than talk about a crisis upon us, I now write about a crisis that is hopefully abating.

Over the last year, our federal government has poured tremendous resources into combating the COVID-19 pandemic with vast sums flowing to agriculture. Money has gone to direct assistance to farmers via the Coronavirus Financial Assistance Program (CFAP) and loans via the Payment Protection Program (PPP), as well as large purchases of excess production to help Americans in need. Tens of billions of dollars were used to help agriculture in 2020, and while we appear to be turning the corner, additional efforts for 2021 are forthcoming.

We know that many of you have been expending lots of resources in order to protect the health and safety of your workforce. As COVID-19 protocols evolved, you have purchased masks, gloves, and sanitizers as well as implemented engineering solutions to enhance safety. To ensure social distancing and the safety of your workforce, many of you have hired new buses to transport workers or spent more money on housing to quarantine farmworkers exposed or infected. Some of you are paying for COVID-19 tests for your employees as well as the copays for vaccinations. Western Growers has been working since last March to try and secure money to help offset those costs. I’m happy to report that language and money was included in the last COVID-19 relief package, recently signed by President Biden, that addresses these needs.

After that effort became law, we turned our attention to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We are working with that agency to shape the design of the relief program. We are advocating for the program to both reimburse for expenses incurred in 2020 and help pay for costs you will incur in 2021. The program likely will not cover every dollar you have spent on worker health and safety for the pandemic, but it will help. Since regulations will be necessary to implement this program, that will take some time. Look for sign up during the summer.

During late May 2020, USDA announced a direct payment program that was intended to provide farmers impacted by COVID-19 direct financial support for market losses. That program went through several iterations during 2020 and Congress reauthorized funds for it for 2021. During 2020, CFAP provided more than $1 billion to the produce industry. The 2021 version will go through a few more tweaks and we encourage anyone to sign up who hasn’t already.

We all look forward to the day when the whole country and world are totally back to normal…and that day is coming soon. In the meantime, we are working on these programs to help you through the crisis and through the recovery.

With that same motivation, we are also working hard on the infrastructure package that President Biden has unveiled. It is clear that we can help the economy recover by making sure we have a robust infrastructure drive.

For Western Growers, infrastructure not only mean roads and bridges but also water projects. As a result, we are pushing very hard to make sure that the final infrastructure package includes money for water systems such as water conservation and infrastructure repair, as well as funds to build new water storage and conveyance.

Over the next couple of months, we will battle to secure the necessary funds as the Biden infrastructure plan mentions water but doesn’t provide much detail on it. Western Growers is working with a large coalition of more than 200 groups from every Western state on this objective, which will provide short term jobs to rural communities as well as long term stability to agriculture, rural and urban water users. We are also hopeful that rural broadband will get a jumpstart as well.

Stay tuned.