Since passage of the CARES Act and H.R. 266, there has been extensive coverage about the billions in new resources the bills authorized — from tax rebates to individuals and families, to benefits for unemployed workers, to funding for hospitals and nursing homes across our region.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney

These are all good and necessary things, but COVID-19-driven layoffs and furloughs are only part of the economic story in America right now. What’s been missing from headlines is the fight that so many of our eastern Connecticut farmers are up against amid this pandemic.

It has been sickening to watch as commodity prices for dairy, livestock, specialty crops, and greenhouse plants have collapsed. The sudden downturn in demand and prices is a truly catastrophic threat to the viability of Connecticut’s family farms and to locally grown food, which are vital to Connecticut’s high quality of life.

A few weeks ago, I joined the Connecticut Farm Bureau on a video conference call to discuss the harsh impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on our state’s family farms. With the planting season and farmer’s market season upon us, it was a sobering event to say the least.

The agricultural decline brought on by COVID-19 is not limited to Connecticut. Rural America from coast to coast is feeling the brunt of this pandemic-induced recession, and incidents of farm closures and crop destruction are happening everywhere.

That’s why the CARES Act included swift measures to help rural America, and it’s why we worked to ensure that H.R. 266 beefed up those provisions and expanded more of them to farmers. Both laws direct new cash payments to farmers and food producers to help stave off the collapse of prices the coronavirus has caused.

For Connecticut’s dairy farms, the CARES Act directed $2.9 billion specifically to the dairy sector through direct payments to cover actual and projected losses. Beef cattle and hog producers will also be eligible for livestock payments.

Farm operations will be able to access relief through a formula that will reimburse up to 85% of their losses due to price collapses and a decline in demand between Jan. 1 and April 15, and up to 30% of projected losses through the next two quarters.

Connecticut agriculture is more diverse than only dairy and livestock, of course, and the CARES Act assistance reflects that diversity.

The bill also authorized $2.1 billion for specialty crops, like vegetables and nursery and orchard-grown commodities, and $500 million for a large swath of items deemed as “other crops.” All these direct payments are designed to help offset expected economic losses related to COVID-19, and USDA has announced they’ll be received by farmers as one lump-sum payment.

The department is still developing the application process for CARES Act direct payments, and my office is tracking the rollout of this program closely. In addition to the funding available this spring, the CARES Act provided the Commodity Credit Corporation with another $14 billion cash infusion to make another round of relief payments this summer.

Direct payments to our farmers are a step in the right direction, but that’s not enough for the agriculture sector at large. Our region’s farmers supply food to homes and small businesses across the entire nation — and when they’re hurting, it creates real ripple effects.

In addition to a round of direct payments, the CARES Act also authorized funding for the USDA to partner with regional and local distributors to purchase $3 billion of fresh dairy, produce, and meat from our region’s farmers. That funding won’t just help move valuable products with expiration dates off shelves while typical buyers like restaurants and hotels are facing closures. It will be immediately put to use and routed to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits helping keep Americans fed during this time of need.

The CARES Act also established the federal Small Business Administration’s $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program to help employers maintain their payrolls during the COVID-19 pandemic. The PPP was always meant to be accessible to farmers, but the SBA didn’t provide clear guidance when the program launched. Just recently, we successfully secured that guidance – my office received new clarification from the SBA confirming that farmers are, in fact, eligible for the PPP, and we’ve already seen some farms in our region receive the funding.

The CARES Act took some of the first steps to help our farmers and farming families through this crisis, and H.R. 266 took it a step further by opening up a new avenue of resources to farmers through the federal Small Business Administration.

H.R. 266 reopened SBA lending programs with even more funding than originally proposed, and it included language that allowed farmers, for the first time, to apply for small-business loans through the SBA’s “Economic Injury Disaster Loan” program. The EIDL is one of the most popular programs providing assistance to America’s small businesses during this pandemic, and farmers are small-business owners too. We made sure H.R. 266 included language that explicitly made them eligible for the EIDL program so that they could start taking advantage.

H.R. 266 passed the House and was signed into law, but the resources that Congress authorized for farmers were slow-coming from the Treasury Department and the SBA. They still hadn’t provided farmers with a portal to apply for and access funding. Farmers were left out of the first round of EIDL funding, and they didn’t just need access — they needed and deserved expedited assistance.

On April 27, I wrote to both Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza to encourage them not only to work quickly to provide farmers with a portal to apply for and access the funding we’d authorized, but also help move farmers to the front of the line. Just this week, on May 4, we were encouraged to see they’d done exactly that – the SBA finally provided farmers a portal to apply for the funding, and they announced they would be focusing on new EIDL applications for farmers, specifically.

As co-chairman of the Congressional Dairy Caucus, I have and will continue to work across the aisle to help approve more federal help to assist our farmers and farming families.

Most importantly is the help that’s available to help our farmers right now. Farmers are eligible for the PPP, they can now apply and receive priority for the EIDL program, and details are emerging on how to start accessing this first round of funding through USDA Farm Service Agencies now that the Department has started to implement resources authorized through the CARES Act. My office is ready to assist any constituent interested in exploring and applying for these resources.

Joe Courtney is the U.S. representative for Connecticut’s 2nd District.

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