By Tom Polansek and Christopher Walljasper
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Twenty-eight U.S. farm groups asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday to extend the deadline for farmers to apply for coronavirus assistance payments and try harder to reach more growers hurt by the pandemic.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, with organizations representing producers of goods ranging from apples to cotton and cattle, said in a letter that USDA’s Aug. 28 deadline may prevent farmers from participating in the $16 billion aid program.
Farmers and ranchers have struggled to sell their goods because of disruptions caused by the pandemic, forcing some to throw out food, euthanize livestock and turn to the government for help.
“We strongly encourage you to increase producer and stakeholder engagement initiatives,” the groups told U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
The USDA paid out $6.8 billion in the program as of Aug. 3, with cattle, milk and corn producers the biggest recipients.
Participation rates are “egregiously low” among producers of fruits and vegetables, the letter said.
The USDA established the program quickly to help farmers, but it was not set up for many specialty-crop growers, according to produce industry sources.
“The (apple) industry was really disheartened,” said Brenda Briggs, vice president of sales at Rice Fruit company in Gardners, Pennsylvania. “We didn’t think the growers were going to get payments.”
The USDA expanded the program on July 9 to cover 40 additional specialty crops and increase eligibility for crops like apples, but the rate of applications among produce growers has not increased.
Many produce growers have less experience working with USDA than producers of major commodity crops like corn and livestock.
Another limiting factor is that payments to growers of many fruits and vegetables are based on the volume of crops sold from Jan. 15 to April 15, when some are out of season. The farm groups asked USDA to review its eligibility criteria including sales dates.
The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.
A spokesperson for USDA’s Farm Service Agency told Reuters last month that USDA was awaiting further direction from Congress before it could modify eligibility dates or offer more aid.
Some lawmakers believe that authority was already granted to USDA by the CARES act, passed on March 27.
“Any limits they feel they have are self-imposed. They may have tied their own hands by deciding to limit their losses to mid-April,” said Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat.
“They can untie their hands very easily and meet the requirements that were mandated under the CARES act if they want to.”
(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Marguerita Choy)