Efforts to get COVID-19 relief funds in the hands of farmers continue to progress, according to Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski, though maybe not as quickly as many in the agriculture industry would like.
Gov. Tony Evers said May 12 during the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Dairy Signal webinar that he hoped an announcement on how funding provided by the CARES Act would be distributed would be announced in a day or two.
However, during the May 14 Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection meeting, Romanski said meetings about the funding were still ongoing.
“We’ve fielded inquiries from organizations representing farmers ... and had discussions about how an aid package would be delivered, how quickly an aid package could be delivered and what is the best way to get dollars into the hands of farmers,” Romanski said. “What the delivery method would look like, there have been a variety of mechanisms that have been proposed.
“From the governor’s perspective and from ours and what we’ve heard from the industry, we would like to see the dollars get out as quickly as possible.”
The first stage of federal funding for COVID-19 relief included $1.9 billion from CARES Act funding. That money was initially itemized in response to needs in the health care industry, but came with limited federal guidance, Romanski said, leaving the state scrambling to figure out how the money can be spent.
“From the very beginning, the governor, realizing the challenges agriculture was facing as a result of COVID-19 response, indicated that he was supportive of using a portion of that funding to provide assistance to the agriculture industry,” Romanski said. “The governor has been engaged with us in conversations with the agriculture industry to determine how best to do that.”
Still, Romanski said, he remains optimistic an announcement on what portion of that $1.9 billion would be earmarked for agriculture and how it could be distributed would be announced soon.
Romanski said Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation has taken part in DATCP’s communications with stakeholders in the agriculture industry, helping the representatives understand just how important this funding is to farmers.
“It’s helped them understand the stress points and anxiety levels for Wisconsin agriculture,” Romanski said. “It’s also helped them develop ideas for delivering future aid to Wisconsin agriculture.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has proposed legislation that would provide more flexibility to states when distributing relief funding, allowing the states to identify areas of need, Romanski said.
“Those resources with that type of delivery mechanism would really help Wisconsin and other states target those dollars where they could have the most impact,” he said.
Romanski said DATCP is continuing to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on ways to keep cash flow moving on farms in Wisconsin. On April 1, DATCP sent a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue asking the USDA to buy excess commodities and pass along details on the coronavirus assistance program that included those purchases and distribution to the food insecure.
Romanski said because of partnerships already in place between DATCP and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Pork Producers Association, Hunger Task Force, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Feeding Wisconsin, and others, he envisioned Wisconsin agriculture playing a strong roll in that distribution system.
That, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have played out in quite the way Romanski would have hoped.
Of the initial $1.2 billion the USDA made available as part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program, Farmers to Families Food Box Program, Wisconsin farmers saw only $9 million of that come their way.
In the Midwest region, Gourmet Gorilla, a school lunch provider based in Chicago, received a total of more than $27.5 million from the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, and, Romanski said, a wedding-event planning group in another state was awarded about $35 million.
“It appears that Wisconsin is underrepresented on that list, and that’s initially disappointing,” Romanski said. “There are a lot of questions. But we’ll continue to work with USDA to see what the plan is for the additional funding that’s available and what else we can do to see that Wisconsin plays a strong role in the food-distribution system.”