Packer Interview - Robert Guenther Aug. 19
( File photo )

September will be a pivotal month to determine if industry pleas for more COVID-19 relief will be answered, Robert Guenther said.

“I think when you talk about what transpired over the last several weeks before the political conventions started, and the fact that a COVID-19 package was not agreed to, it really brings into highlight that September is a truly crucial month,” Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, said Aug. 19.

With the fourth COVID-19 stimulus package expected to be up for debate in September, Guenther said the United Fresh Washington Conference, set for Sept. 21-25, is timely.

The stakes for election year battles could not be bigger. Beyond the drama of the presidential race between President Trump and Joe Biden, Guenther said the fight for control of the Senate is what everybody is watching, Guenther said.

“There are a lot of very hotly contested (Senate) seats, very close races could go either way that may impact to kind of decisions that are made post-election,” he said.

The government is facing the prospect of a shutdown Sept. 30 unless Congress and the administration agree on a spending package.

The online Washington Conference — and a virtual march on Capitol Hill — will include participation by elected leaders, administration officials and industry experts on nutrition, trade, food safety and more, he said. 

Unprecedented federal support

Guenther said the effect COVID-19 had on the produce supply chain beginning in March, is devastating. The good news is that federal government support since the COVID-19 pandemic began has been unprecedented. Since March, about $4.5 billion has been distributed to the industry through various relief programs. In comparison, the farm bill supplies $3 billion to the industry over five years.

He said the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and the Paycheck Protection Program have all been helpful but are not enough.

“All of these three important tools have been very critical, helping stabilize the industry; this next phase is more trying to help not just stabilize, but also to bring (the industry) out of a stabilization phase to more of a recovery phase,” he said. 

Urgent needs

One current need of the industry is recouping costs related to containing the spread of COVID-19.

“Now we’re looking at more requests, more discussions about how we can help the companies offset costs related to COVID (safety) enhancements that they’ve done to protect their businesses and most importantly, their employees,” Guenther said. 

Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for Western Growers, said the COVID-19 pandemic safety measures have hit the bottom lines of growers hard. Western Growers is looking for federal support to help growers defray the costs.

“We’ve encouraged Congress to provide additional funding for these farm worker safety measures,” he said, noting the relief could be in the form of tax credits for those who purchase personal protective equipment.

Resnick said that another issue for Western Growers is seeking funds for workers to cover the cost of child care.

“Childcare is an important priority so that they can continue to work and not have to worry about staying home if they choose to work,” he said.

Western Growers would also like liability protection for growers in the next stimulus package. Although the issue doesn’t have much traction so far, Resnick said Western Growers is collaborating with other associations inside and outside of agriculture to try to influence the debate in Washington on employer liability.

The Packer COVID-19 Coverage

The Packer's United Fresh Coverage