By Mike Dorning
President Donald Trump said he has asked his agriculture secretary to “use all of the funds and authorities at his disposal,” to aid U.S. farmers, whose financial peril has worsened in the coronavirus pandemic.
The administration plans to announce an aid package next week, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump in a Twitter post on Thursday night said he wanted to “to expedite help to our farmers, especially to the smaller farmers who are hurting right now.”
His tweets did not provide specifics, but the coronavirus relief bill Congress passed last month includes $23.5 billion in aid for farmers. So far, it hasn’t been clear how all of those funds will get doled out.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a conference call Wednesday he would like to distribute aid “sooner rather than later.”
Farmers, who have already suffered through the U.S.-China trade war and years of grain gluts, have been dealt a further blow by the virus which has damped the outlook for commodity demand. In some areas, fruit and vegetable growers have let produce rot in the fields as demand plummeted after restaurants shut. At the same time, some dairy farmers have resorted to dumping milk because the market for cheese and butter collapsed.
Farmers and rural communities are a critical part of Trump’s political base as he seeks re-election this year, and the administration bolstered agriculture during the trade war with a $28 billion bailout.
USDA press representatives didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the timing of the aid plan.
The congressional legislation gives the USDA broad discretion on how to distribute the aid, though it directs the department to include dairy and livestock producers and growers of specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables.
The American Farm Bureau Federation sent the USDA a six-page letter detailing requests sector by sector. Produce growers are seeking $5 billion. Dairy farmers have asked the government to pay producers to cut milk output and buy up cheese, butter and other dairy products for food banks. Biofuel makers also want aid after ethanol prices plunged.
The relief package was broken down into $9.5 billion in emergency funding and $14 billion provided to the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp., a Depression-era entity the Trump administration has used for its farm-bailout programs in the past two years. Perdue said Wednesday the department could move quickly to distribute the first set of funds, but that the agency would have to wait until early summer to use the latter.