While most sectors of our economy were thriving before the coronavirus pandemic hit, farmers and ranchers were struggling. Low prices, extended trade disputes, and natural disasters had meant a tough few years for agriculture producers even before the arrival of the coronavirus. So the pandemic has hit farmers and ranchers particularly hard. Agriculture is the lifeblood of South Dakota, and making sure our agriculture producers have what they need to keep feeding our nation – and the world – is one of my top priorities in Washington.
During debate on the CARES Act – our largest coronavirus relief bill to date – I fought to make sure that we included relief for farmers and ranchers. The final bill included $14 billion to replenish the Commodity Credit Corporation, plus an additional $9.5 billion in emergency support to allow the Department of Agriculture to provide income and price support for farmers and ranchers.
Days after the bill passed, I led a bipartisan group of senators and representatives in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, urging him to use a portion of the funds to provide support for hard-hit cattle producers. In mid-April, the Department of Agriculture responded to that letter and other petitions by announcing that it would issue $16 billion in direct payments to agriculture producers, including livestock producers, affected by the virus. Sign-ups for this funding began at the end of May, and according to the most recent data, South Dakota agriculture producers had received approximately $342 million.
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.
In June, I introduced the Paycheck Protection for Producers Act, legislation that 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. I will continue to advocate for passage of this bill in the Senate, either as part of future coronavirus relief legislation or another bill.
I’m also hoping the Senate will take up my Pandemic Authority Suitable to Utilize Reserve Easements Act – or PASTURE Act – in the near future. This legislation, which I also introduced in June, would provide relief to farmers and ranchers by allowing emergency haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) 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. As a result of the pandemic, farmers and ranchers are having to hold onto their livestock for longer than expected. This bill would help ensure that they have adequate forage for their animals.
Another challenge facing farmers during the pandemic is the drop in fuel demand. This is troubling news for the ethanol industry and for employees at shuttered plants, but also for the broader agriculture and rural economy.
As ethanol producers idle production, they will slow their purchases of corn – which will be grim news for corn farmers, who are anxiously keeping an eye on the approaching fall harvest. In addition to supporting direct relief for biofuels, I recently introduced several bills that would support the industry by approving advanced fuel registrations, updating old emissions data that is holding back exports, and extending emergency Food and Drug Administration guidance to ensure ethanol-based hand sanitizer can continue to help fight the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the vital role American farmers and ranchers play. Without these essential workers, the shortages on shelves during the pandemic would be much worse. We need to ensure that our agriculture producers have the support they need to weather this crisis and continue feeding and fueling our nation. I will continue to do everything I can to help farmers and ranchers through the challenges they’re facing.