RALEIGH — The U.S. Senate’s recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) will provide various protections and benefits to support agricultural businesses and farmers.
The $2 trillion CARES Act is intended to support the county’s economy during the COVID-19 crisis through extended unemployment benefits, tax credits, federal loan guarantees and direct payments to citizens of up to $1,200.
Agriculture and numerous food-related services were designated in February as essential industries by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Agriculture-related provisions within the CARES Act total approximately $49 billion, with roughly half or $24.6 billion of that total being allotted for domestic food programs.
The CARES Act allots $9.5 billion to the Office of the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. That funding is specifically set aside to aid those working to supply local food systems, such as those who provide for farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants and schools. It’s also intended to assist specialty crop growers, as well as livestock and dairy farmers.
This funding is good news for the farmers markets in North Carolina, which have remained open but have recently taken steps to increase social distancing.
“The goal of these increased measures is to make it easier for shoppers and farmers to practice proper social distancing,” said N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler in a press release earlier this month. “Market managers also are encouraging at-risk populations to visit the markets on days when there are fewer shoppers.”
Troxler said they expect to spread vendors out or add additional space to keep the public safe.
“These famer’s markets are an open-air grocery store,” said Troxler, who went on to note they are a critical part of the state’s food infrastructure.
When asked about the status of North Carolina farms and if there were any food supply issues on his radar, Troxler told North State Journal there was not a food shortage issue, but a distribution issue.
“I think this is symptomatic of what we’ve seen before with a snow storm or an ice storm and people go to the grocery store to stock up,” Troxler said. “This time it’s a long lasting snow storm and hoarding of products has affected the ability to reload the shelves.”
“I do not believe that we have any food shortage in the United States or North Carolina, but it is a distribution problem,” said Troxler.
Troxler went on to say that the distribution issues were predictable. He said that the bigger burden placed on grocery stores through school and restaurant closures coupled with hoarding activities put a strain on the system.
“I think over time a period of time there will be an adjustment in that distribution, where there is plenty of food on the shelves and if people will just not panic, then everything’s going to be okay,” said Troxler.
Troxler said agriculture in North Carolina remains strong and continues to lead in pork, poultry and sweet potato production.
“We’re going to eat fine. We’ve just got to get it to the shelves,” said Troxler, adding that transportation “is a key in this” and that there is a need for more properly licensed drivers to do deliveries.
According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolina has over 46,000 farm operations that cover a wide range of crop, livestock and dairy farms. As of 2017, the state was the nation’s top producer of poultry and eggs and No. 2 in the country for production of hogs and pigs. Cash farm receipts in 2018 came in at over $11.1 billion.
Other allotments under the CARES Act include supplemental nutrition programs which will receive $15.8 billion, with $300 million earmarked for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help cover underserved areas.
Key agriculture, rural services and food-related programs receiving funding in the CARES Act include $185 million to support rural critical access hospitals, rural tribal health and telehealth programs, and poison control centers.
$100 million will go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “ReConnect” pilot program. The ReConnect Program provides financing and funding options in the form of loans or grants to help rural areas that currently lack sufficient access to broadband internet, defined by the law as 10 Mbps (megabits per second) downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.
“If you think about school systems being closed and a lot of virtual education going on, there are a lot of areas of the state that are put at a distinct disadvantage,” said Troxler. “We all know how critical broadband access is to the rural areas of the state and especially to the agricultural areas.”
$45 million will remain available until Sept. 20, 2021, for agricultural marketing services to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including necessary expenses for salary costs associated with commodity grading, inspection, and audit activities.”
Food Safety and Inspection services have been allotted $33 million and the Commodity Assistance Program has been allotted $450 million, $150 million of which is to be used for costs associated with the distribution of goods and commodities.
Additionally, $20.5 million is included to support an additional $1 billion of lending through USDA’s Rural Development program and $25 million for the “Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program.”