( Courtesy USDA )

Democrats on a House Agriculture subcommittee have notified Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue of what they see as inadequacies of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program in serving specialty crop producers.

The CFAP is the direct payment program in which specialty crop growers were allocated $2.1 billion of a total $16 billion for farmers and ranchers. As of Aug. 3, specialty crop growers had received $269.6 million. The USDA updates the numbers in the program every Monday.

Twelve Democrats, members of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, including chairwoman Stacy Plaskett, sent a letter to Perdue on Aug. 7, noting that the overall program has paid out $6.82 billion, with less than 4% going to the specialty crop growers.

“These funds have been particularly difficult to access for specialty crop farmers who are young, socially disadvantaged, or rely on local markets with diversified production practices,” according to the letter. “Additionally, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program has been difficult to access for limited resource specialty crop farmers who often struggle to obtain the required food safety audits.”

The subcommittee members requested the USDA to do more to assist the specialty crop sector in the letter, particularly young, socially disadvantaged or sell to local markets.

“The small share of federal funds flowing to specialty crop producers highlights the critical need for USDA to conduct immediate and targeted outreach to specialty crop stakeholders ahead of CFAP’s Aug. 28, 2020 deadline,” according to the letter. “Additionally, USDA must commit to work with small- and medium-sized producers to ensure that all aspects of the CFAP initiative are accessible, including the (Farmer to Families Food Box Program).”

The USDA originally limited all third-round contracts to companies that could supply combination boxes that included fresh produce, cooked meat products, milk and dairy products (and eggs if companies chose to), but it has amended the third round to include produce only boxes, as well as meat and dairy (including fluid milk) boxes.

The USDA announced the commodity-specific amendment on Aug. 7.

“Failure to support these specialty crop farmers will threaten the long-term viability of their businesses and negatively impact our communities,” according to the Democrats’ letter. “Thank you for your consideration of this request, and we stand ready to continue working with you to best support our local specialty crop farmers.”

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