CORONAVIRUS

Biden administration suspends COVID-19 farm-aid payments pending review

A harvester runs among rows in fall 2014 at Burns Farm in Stockton, Calif. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
A harvester runs among rows in fall 2014 at Burns Farm in Stockton, Calif. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

The Biden administration suspended payments from a $2.28 billion farm-relief program for a review after officials under Donald Trump, the former president, authorized the aid on their last full day in office.

About 87 percent of the payments under the final round of aid are reserved for hog and poultry farmers who work under contracts commonly used for meatpacking companies such as Tyson Foods Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc., according to a Federal Register notice published Jan. 19.

The latest tranche of farm aid, drawing on funding included in the $900 billion coronavirus-relief package that Congress passed in December, follows a year of record payments during the pandemic, economic slump and trade disputes.

U.S. Agriculture Department spokesman Matt Herrick said Thursday that the agency would continue to accept applications for the aid while assessing the program as part of a wide review by the Biden administration of last-minute regulatory actions by Trump.

“We’ll work as quickly as we can to complete the review,” Herrick said. “This is a big, important program, and we need to get it right.”

A notice on the USDA website announcing the payment suspension said the department would announce additional virus-relief measures for farmers soon.

“We’re going to use a mix of financial relief, looking at ways to expand access to lending, and working with existing authority as well as with Congress to ensure farm programming reaches producers of all sizes, regions and production styles in the months ahead,” Herrick said.

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Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the incoming Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman, lauded the review of aid, saying the Trump administration plan didn’t address provisions in the final legislation calling for assistance for farmworkers, smaller food processors and others involved in the supply chain.

“I very much want to see them evaluate where we are,” Stabenow said. “I’d like to have them look at what we wrote into the law that has not yet been acted on. A review makes sense.”

Thousands of workers at meatpackers caught the coronavirus in the spring. That prompted slaughterhouses to close and sent prices soaring, while prices for animals such as hogs and cattle tumbled.

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