WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and a bipartisan group of 26 other Senate colleagues in a letter calling on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to ensure that specialty crop producers receive financial assistance from losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Specialty crops grown in Washington state include tree fruits, potatoes, vegetables, cranberries, grapes and hops. Agriculture was deemed an essential industry under Governor Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 closure orders.
“The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act established a $9.5 billion disaster fund and specifically included producers of specialty crops as eligible for assistance,” the senators wrote. “As USDA specifies how this assistance will be provided, we ask that you ensure that specialty crop producers receive assistance that is commensurate with the losses they are facing.”
Washington state produces over 250 different specialty crops. Potatoes are a top commodity; Washington boasts the highest concentration of potato processors in the world, and ninety percent of all potatoes grown in the state go towards processed potato products. However, many potato growers and processors have seen significant declines in demand as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Before the pandemic, growers were on track to plant 170,000 acres of potatoes in Washington. Now, new estimates indicate that only 140,000 acres will be planted, a reduction of 1.8 billion pounds of potatoes that would otherwise have been harvested in 2020. Apple growers – responsible for Washington’s number one crop, worth $2.4 billion – and other tree fruit growers also face hardship as they grapple to ensure workers are safe and tree fruit gets out to markets.
The fresh produce industry has experienced $5 billion in losses from COVID-19, with additional losses expected in the coming months. Producers are also facing increased costs in order to meet social distancing requirements and adequately protect their workers from COVID-19, on top of existing challenges with trade.
In their letter, the senators urged the USDA to provide direct payments to eligible producers for lost revenue and increased production costs related to COVID-19. They also asked USDA to purchase specialty crops for redistribution to food banks, schools and emergency feeding organizations.
In addition to Senators Cantwell, Feinstein, and Stabenow, the letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Gary Peters (D-MI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Chris Coons (D-DE), Bob Casey (D-PA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tina Smith (D-MN), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Angus King (I-ME).
The full text of the letter is available HERE and below.
Dear Secretary Perdue:
We write on behalf of specialty crop producers to ensure that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers the needs and significant financial losses specialty crop producers are facing as a result of COVID-19. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act established a $9.5 billion disaster fund and specifically included producers of specialty crops as eligible for assistance. As USDA specifies how this assistance will be provided, we ask that you ensure that specialty crop producers receive assistance that is commensurate with the losses they are facing.
Specialty crop producers grow the nutritious fruits, vegetables, and nuts that are essential to a healthy diet. With the onset of COVID-19, the fresh produce industry has experienced $5 billion in losses, with additional losses expected in the coming months. Contracts with restaurants, schools, and the hospitality industry have been cancelled, and redistributing this product presents significant challenges for some crops.
Specialty crops have already faced challenges due to trade disputes with foreign countries, and lost markets abroad have resulted in a substantial decrease in revenues, as products that normally would have been exported are now flooding the domestic market. Producers are also facing increased costs in order to meet social distancing requirements and adequately protect their workers from coronavirus. For example, producers are experiencing increased production costs and challenges planting, harvesting, packing, and processing certain products. All of these factors are contributing to increased uncertainty for specialty crop producers.
In addition to fruit and vegetable production, many producers of horticulture, floriculture, and nursery plants are experiencing or have projected steep losses as a result of COVID-19. States have inconsistently designated garden centers as essential, which puts businesses at risk during the busiest time of year for gardening purchases and landscaping. Further, social distancing and the cancellation of all events have reduced consumer spending on cut flowers.
We, therefore, respectfully request that USDA provide direct payments to eligible producers who have lost revenue and are experiencing increased production costs related to COVID-19. As USDA considers allocations of these funds, we ask that USDA take into account losses as a result of coronavirus that are incurred beyond the designated health emergency timeframe. Farmers with peak harvest crops in the summer and fall also face considerable uncertainty so accurately accounting for and addressing those losses will be critical. To immediately reduce the inventory of product and stabilize prices, we also ask that USDA purchase fresh and processed specialty crops for redistribution to food banks, schools, and emergency feeding organizations. Farmers have lost contracts with schools and restaurants, schools that are continuing to serve fresh product have substantially reduced their orders, and producers are experiencing challenges exporting product, all of which have contributed to surplus inventories.
It is vital that USDA utilize all of the programs available to make additional purchases. Additional funding for nutrition programs provided by the CARES Act, supplemental to existing USDA spending authority and programs like Section 32, will assist producers and provide nutritious food to those in need. At a time when Americans are facing job losses on an unprecedented scale, and food banks are experiencing increased demand, a policy that can both support farmers and provide food for those in need is a win-win. It is critical that USDA also prioritize approval of pending Section 32 requests and designate methods to expedite purchases going forward in order to provide immediate relief for industries ahead of harvest season.
Thank you for your efforts to support the specialty crop industry, and for your continued efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.