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Policy Update: Congress Passes Covid Relief and FY 2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bill

corn harvestOver the weekend, Congress reached a deal on Covid relief and FY 2021 appropriations. The legislation was passed as a single omnibus bill on Monday night. The Covid relief portion totals $900 billion and contains many structural similarities to the $2.2 trillion CARES package. The appropriations portion totals $1.4 trillion, which is on par with the previous year’s total appropriations. The full text (all 5,593 pages) can be read here, with a very brief summary here.

The Covid relief portion of the bill has been long-awaited, with the last major relief bill being passed nine months ago. Although certain programs have received additional funding since then – such as the Payment Protection Program (PPP) – other provisions were set to expire on December 26, such as increased unemployment benefits. It is possible that this will be the last major Covid relief bill.

COVID Relief: The new relief package, officially titled the “Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act,” closely mirrors March’s CARES Act, although it has less than half of the funding (summary here). The bill’s major provisions contain:

  • $120 billion increase in unemployment benefits through March, equaling a $300 weekly boost.
  • $166 billion for a second round of stimulus checks depending on income. Individuals who made less than $75,000 in 2019 will receive $600 for themselves and their dependents.
  • $325 billion to small businesses, including $284 billion for loans through the PPP.
  • $69 billion to states for vaccine purchase and distribution, and Coronavirus testing, tracing, and mitigation programs.
  • $82 billion for schools and universities, as well as $10 billion for the childcare sector.
  • $25 billion in rental assistance and a federal eviction ban through January.
  • $45 billion for transportation aid including airlines, mass transit, highways, and Amtrak.
  • $7 billion to increase broadband access, including $300 million for rural broadband.
  • $26 billion to USDA (detailed below).

The package does not contain two contentious items, namely liability shields for businesses and state and local relief, although it is possible that Congress will take up additional Covid relief legislation in the new year. The bill also does not contain relief specifically for the restaurant industry. AFT is disappointed about the lack of relief to state and local governments and will continue to press for action on this issue. In September, AFT issued a statement on the importance of state and local relief, since many conservation programs rely on this funding.

Agriculture: The agriculture provision contains $13 billion for Covid-related assistance to support agricultural producers and processors. In general, the bill provides more guidance to the Secretary of Agriculture than the CARES Act. The relief bill:

  • Provides an estimated additional $5 billion in funding to USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) by increasing the payment for price trigger and flat rate crops (commodities such as corn, rice, cotton, etc.) to $20 per acre.
  • Provides livestock and poultry support including:
    • Payments to producers for losses due to animal depopulation because of insufficient processing access.
    • Support for cattle producers, and $1 billion for contract growers of livestock and poultry to cover losses.
    • $20 million for animal disease prevention and response capacity.
    • Establishes a livestock dealer trust to benefit unpaid sellers of livestock.
  • Provides USDA program support including:
    • $100 million for Specialty Crop Block Grants.
    • $100 million for Local Agriculture Marketing Program (AFT has previously supported providing this program additional funding as part of our Covid relief recommendations).
    • $75 million for Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) to help support socially disadvantaged producers [FOTO combines the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program (BFRDP) and Section 2501].
  • Provides dairy support including:
    • Supplemental Dairy Margin Coverage support, including $400 million to support dairy donations to non-profit entities such as food banks.
    • Allowing USDA to make purchases of dairy products from processors, packagers, merchants, marketers, wholesalers, and distributors.
  • Provides industry support including:
    • Assisting slaughtering and meat processing facilities with making improvements to allow for interstate shipment.
    • Assisting domestic users and processors of cotton, and allows for payments to producers of biofuels and renewable fuels (which were not eligible for relief as part of prior relief legislation).
  • Provides $28 million in grants to State Departments of Agriculture to expand or sustain stress assistance programs for agricultural operations to provide behavioral health counseling.
  • Extends the term of marketing assistance loans for any loan commodity to 12 months.
  • Provides USDA $1.5 billion to purchase agriculture products; purchase and distribute agriculture products through NGOs; and provides for grants and loans to small or midsized food processors, distributors, farmers markets, producers, or other organizations to respond to COVID-19 and protect workers.
  • Allows for $200 million in payments to timber harvesting and hauling.
  • Addresses inequities in USDA’s sales commodity program for specialty crop and other producers who suffered a disaster in 2019.
  • Directs the Secretary to conduct a review of the COVID impacts on, and need of, agricultural producers and processors, and the actions needed to improve food purchasing programs.

Nutrition Support: The bill contains another $13 billion for nutrition support.

  • Provides about $7 billion to increase SNAP benefits by 15% through June 30, 2021. Also broadens program eligibility.
  • Allows $5 million to add additional retailers to online SNAP, including direct-sales producers and farmers markets (AFT has previously supported legislation that would expand the ability of SNAP participants to purchase from direct-sales producers and farmers markets).
  • Provides $100 million for SNAP state administrative expenses.
  • Allows $400 million for food banks through the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
  • Provides $75 million for the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Assistance Program to incentivize SNAP participants to purchase fruits and vegetables from farmers markets (a similar concept was supported by AFT within its COVID relief recommendations).
  • Provides $20 million for nutrition research.

Appropriations: Instead of being passed as 12 individual bills, the FY 2021 appropriations was passed as one large omnibus package totaling $1.4 trillion in the same legislation as the relief package. The bill includes normal government functions, including relevant agricultural appropriations and report language. Relevant details are provided below:

  • Natural Resources Conservation Service:
    • Conservation Operations is given $832,727,000, which is a nearly $3 million increase above the FY 2020 enacted level.
    • “The Secretary is encouraged to dedicate more Conservation Technical Assistance to establish standard protocols for measuring and testing carbon levels to evaluate gains in soil health that will help producers to create positive economic, environmental, and social outcomes through ecosystem service markets. The agreement believes that additional Conservation Technical Assistance should be provided for healthy soil planning, soil carbon sequestration, and conservation activity planning.”
  • Agriculture Marketing Service:
    • “The agreement recognizes the severe stress and harsh economic losses facing the Nation’s dairy farmers that have driven thousands of farmers out of business and delayed economic recovery for those that remain. Given this urgency, the agreement encourages the Secretary to use all available resources to help these struggling farmers to diversify, innovate, and reduce risk.”
    • “The agreement recognizes that the current economic climate has had a severe, negative impact on local food systems. The agreement encourages AMS to prioritize funding applications that increase the resilience and adaptability of local food systems.”
  • Risk Management Agency:
    • “The agreement directs RMA to provide flexibility to producers wishing to hay or graze cover crops on prevented planting acreage before November 1. The agreement further directs RMA to study alternatives to a nationwide haying and grazing date in order to avoid primary nesting and the potential impact of eliminating penalties for haying and grazing after the primary nesting season.”
  • Rural Development:
    • $635,000,000 for the ReConnect pilot program to increase rural broadband access.
  • Agricultural Credit Insurance Fund Program Account:
    • Maintains the $5,000,000 budget authority for the Relending Program to Resolve Ownership and Succession on Farmland (a program created within the 2018 Farm Bill to address heirs’ property title issues). Analysis suggest that this will enable USDA to provide $33,693,000 in loans.
About the Author
Emily Liss

Federal Policy Associate

eliss@farmland.org

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