By JIM RUTLEDGE
WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the federal government shutdown entering its third week, farmers eager to apply for the Trump administration’s second round of Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments, intended to aid farmers hit by the impact of retaliatory tariffs on agricultural products, will have to wait.
The deadline for applying for the payments was originally Jan. 15, and a spokesman for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in an email to Farm World that it would be up to Perdue whether to extend that deadline once the shutdown ends.
The partial government shutdown forced the closing of dozens of agencies and programs within the USDA, and nine other government-wide departments including the EPA, which had been operating at 2018 fiscal year spending levels under a continuing resolution that expired Dec. 21, 2018, amid an impasse between President Donald Trump and Congress over his demand for $5.6 billion in Mexico border wall funding.
Trump met with Congressional leaders on Jan. 4, including the newly elected House Democratic leadership, to work out a compromise, but to no avail. The House passed a spending bill for 2019 late in the evening on Jan. 3 to reopen the government, but without funding a wall.
Following Friday’s White House meeting, a staff committee of representatives from both sides met over the weekend but that too ended in deadlock. Trump threatened late Friday to declare a national emergency to fund the wall – a measure that would face legal challenges, Congressional aides have said.
The shutdown forced the closing of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) that handles applications and funding for the MFP. As a result, local FSA offices across the country were closed, sending more than 7,500 FSA workers home, while another 2,890 USDA employees were forced to work without pay.
Throughout the USDA, 58,986 employees have been furloughed from a workforce of 95,383. The remaining are working without paychecks.
MFP activity mixed
In July the Trump administration authorized $12 billion in direct payments and market assistance to farmers – the MFP – to offset losses from retaliatory tariffs by other countries on agricultural exports last year. Of the $12 billion, $9,567,400 has been set aside for direct MFP payments.
The FSA has been administering the first half of payments since September for 2018 commodities the government determined were most affected by the export tariffs: almonds, corn, cotton, hog, sorghum, soybeans, fresh sweet cherries, wheat and dairy products.
Farmers who have already had their 2018 productions certified by FSA will still receive their payments on time from the $4,783,700 remaining in MFP funding. FSA guidelines say applications will be processed once the applicant’s harvest is complete, as payments will only be issued once last year’s production is reported.
In late December, the USDA had authorized the second half of MFP payments at the same rates as the first half. The crop rates per bushel in this region are:
•Corn, 1 cent
•Wheat, 14 cents
•Sorghum, 86 cents
•Cotton, 6 cents per pound
•Sweet cherries, 16 cents per pound
Dairy and hog operations were also included at rates for milk at 12 cents per cwt. and hogs at $8 a head. There is a cap of $125,000 per applicant for all combined eligible commodities.
Prior to the shutdown all the rates and crop tables were listed at a special USDA website (www.farmers.gov) but until funding is approved the website is not being maintained or updated. For farmers who have already applied, completed harvest and certified their 2018 productions, the second payment will be issued on the remaining 50 percent of the farmer’s total production.
The shutdown has also affected the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which has been administering food purchases and a distribution program to purchase up to $1.2 billion in targeted commodities. Up until the shutdown, the USDA had procured some portion of 16 of 29 commodities included in the program, totaling more than 4,500 truckloads of food, the USDA stated.
Also affected was $200 million that had been made available to farmers through the Foreign Agricultural Service’s (FAS) Agricultural Trade Promotion (ATP) program. The FAS was due to announce ATP funding awards in early January, but that is delayed.
Statistics in stasis
A long list of weekly and monthly agricultural reports, critical to farmers and other food producers, have been suspended due to the shutdown. Those include data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Economic Research Service (ERS) reports, the awarding of new service grants and rural development loans and the suspension of investigations into anticompetitive activities.
Additionally, farm loans and disaster assistance programs were also affected.
In the interim, some programs are still operating, including critical USDA inspection services, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP), emergency and natural disaster response and technical and financial assistance through some conservation programs.
The government has warned that these programs will not last indefinitely; if the shutdown lasts long enough, they too will be halted. The USDA did not respond to further inquiries on what would trigger total suspension of SNAP payments.
Presuming no change after press time, Jan. 9 is day 17 of the shutdown; the longest shutdown so far was 21 days, in 1995.