It's official! The first day of 2021 is here (finally). What better way to kick it off than with a look at our most viewed post in 2020, authored by Anna Johnson in April.
This piece takes a look at the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act days after it was passed. At the Center for Rural Affairs, we strive to help all rural people from small business owners to family farmers and ranchers to leaders of small communities. By analyzing bills such as the CARES Act, we can get you the latest information, especially when deadlines come up fast.
The COVID-19 pandemic shaped our work during 2020. Starting in March, our staff pivoted work to help you. We took phone calls and assisted you with CARES Act programs; we answered small business needs, including offering a new Express Loan product; we assisted workers of meatpacking plants and their families to advocate for safety in the workplace; we fought for rural in the halls of Congress, and in the states of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota; we amplified our work on food access, including focuses on small meat processing, farmers markets, and more; we provided conversations on race and mental health in rural America; and we hosted a number of trainings for small businesses, producers, and community leaders, many of which will carry over into 2021.
This is just a sample of what we've done this year. Thank you for reading our blog in 2020. We look forward to writing for you and working for rural America during the next year and beyond.
In the face of our public health crisis due to the coronavirus, Congress passed a stimulus package on March 27—The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—which provides unprecedented levels of aid funds to individuals and industries, including a variety of supports for agriculture.
The first of these is the creation of a $9.5 billion disaster relief program to provide support for producers impacted by the coronavirus. This funding is for specialty crop producers, livestock producers, and producers who supply local food systems. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently working to determine how to distribute these funds to producers who need them.
The bill also includes an additional $14 billion for the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), the same fund previously used to make trade mitigation payments to commodity growers.
In addition, the legislation provides funding for small business loan programs, including the newly-created Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Funded at $349 billion, the program, administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), will provide loans to small businesses for payroll costs, most mortgage interest, rent, and utility costs over an eight-week period after the loan is made.
Farms apply through existing SBA lenders, including participating Farm Credit institutions. To be considered for funding, employee and compensation levels must be maintained. Farms with 500 or fewer employees are eligible for these loans. More information about this program, including a sample application form, can be found here. Applications will be accepted through June 30, although interested individuals should not delay in reaching out to their lenders to apply.
The CARES Act also provides $10 billion in funding for an existing program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loans, which farms are not currently eligible for, but is easily confused with the PPP. These loans are for working capital following a disaster to be used for paying fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that cannot be paid due to a disaster. These loans are also administered by the SBA.
Finally, self-employed people, including farmers, are now eligible to apply for unemployment benefits under the CARES Act.
What can you do?
The details of how USDA will manage the new disaster relief program and distribute the CCC funds are still being decided. But if you are concerned about the impacts of the coronavirus, here are two useful actions you can take right now:
1. To ensure that a fair portion of the $9.5 billion disaster aid funding goes to farmers who have lost income from the shuttering of local markets, make a quick call to your Senators and Representative, and share this message with the person who answers the phone (or the answering machine):
“Hello, my name is _____ (and share one or two details about your operation) and I’m calling to ask Senator/Representative ______ to work with USDA to ensure that the $9.5 billion of stimulus funds for agriculture is fairly distributed to farmers who sell to local and regional markets.”
You can find the phone number for your two senators and representative by calling the congressional switchboard at 202.224.3121, or by looking up their office phone number on their websites.
2. One of the agencies of the USDA—the Farm Services Agency—is responsible for administering existing disaster aid programs. While they have not yet released information about how to apply for aid funds in the stimulus bill, now is a great time to get to know your local FSA office in preparation. You may want to apply for an FSA farm number; read more about that here from our colleagues at Rural Advancement Foundation International.
You can find the phone number for your local FSA office here.
How are other farm programs impacted?
The USDA has announced several changes to existing farm programs in response to the coronavirus impact. These include relaxing requirements on farm loans and extending deadlines on crop insurance reporting. Read more about those changes here
The USDA has also shifted how they are doing business with farmers. Instead of visiting your local USDA office to apply for a conservation program or FSA loan, you must instead call. Lines are very busy at this time, so if your call is not answered, leave a detailed message. Find the phone number for your local office here.
Other helpful resources
Other organizations are offering resources to farmers struggling with the widespread changes due to the coronavirus.
The American Farmland Trust has created a relief fund that will offer small- and mid-size farmers cash grants of $1,000.
Farm Aid maintains a hotline to offer farmers advice and support, and refer farmers to a network of farm and rural support organizations across the country. Call 1.800.FARM.AID or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture and Legal Aid of Nebraska will be hosting free, confidential farm clinics between April 2 and 24. The clinics are an opportunity to meet with an experienced Ag law attorney and Ag financial counselor to discuss your operation.