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Investing in the Future of Agriculture

By Sen. John Thune

June 19, 2020

Unlike the majority of the economy, which was thriving before the coronavirus pandemic, the agriculture economy had been struggling for a while. Low prices, extended trade disputes, and natural disasters had meant a tough few years for farmers and ranchers even before the coronavirus hit. Now things are even more challenging.

Agriculture is the lifeblood of South Dakota, so supporting farmers and ranchers during this crisis has been one of my top priorities. I fought to get agriculture relief money included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – the CARES Act – which was signed into law in late March. The final bill included $14 billion to replenish the Commodity Credit Corporation to allow the Department of Agriculture to provide income and price support for farmers and ranchers, plus an additional $9.5 billion in emergency support for agriculture producers affected by the pandemic.

Over the past few months, I’ve kept in frequent contact with the Department of Agriculture and others to amplify producers’ concerns and urge swift relief. I’ve also been focused on developing additional legislation to help farmers and ranchers weather this crisis.

I recently introduced legislation to allow emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program acres for the duration of this crisis. Under current law, agriculture producers can hay or graze their CRP acres during weather-related disasters without a reduction in their CRP payments. My legislation would extend that provision to cover pandemics, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also introduced the Paycheck Protection for Producers Act, which will help more farmers and ranchers benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program. The coronavirus relief legislation we passed in late March established the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses to help them keep their employees on their payroll during this crisis. Self-employed Americans, which describes many farmers and ranchers, are eligible for these loans. But in practice, the program’s guidelines have excluded a lot of agriculture producers.

Low commodity prices and a challenging planting season meant that many farmers and ranchers had a negative net income in 2019. And right now the program’s guidelines exclude farmers or ranchers without employees with a negative net income for last year. My legislation would allow more farmers to access the Paycheck Protection Program by allowing them to use their 2019 gross income instead of their 2019 net income when applying for a loan.

In addition to direct relief, another thing we can do to support our nation’s agriculture producers is to support the ethanol industry, which has stepped up to help during the coronavirus crisis by providing ethanol, or alcohol, for hand sanitizer. I imagine there are few Americans who haven’t significantly stepped up their purchase of hand sanitizer during the current crisis. To help us meet this need, I introduced the Hand Sanitizer Guidance Extension Act of 2020. Put simply, my bill will extend the Food and Drug Administration’s temporary ethanol-based hand sanitizer guidance for at least two years. This will give ethanol producers that have made investments or changes in operations to meet the need for hand sanitizer a longer time to recoup those costs. 

To further improve the bottom line of ethanol operators, I also introduced bipartisan legislation to override Environmental Protection Agency inaction that has blocked producers from using their investments at scale to make cellulosic biofuel. Advancing corn kernel fiber registrations, for example, will add value to the corn crop and help increase margins until fuel demand is restored and our economy rebounds.  

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted just how much we rely on our nation’s agriculture producers. I am grateful every day for their work. And advocating for them will continue to be one of my top priorities. I am committed to helping our farmers and ranchers through the challenges they’re facing and seeing our nation’s agriculture economy thrive.