Wisconsin farmers will soon be getting a little relief from the upheaval of the past several months.
Gov. Tony Evers on May 20 announced the Wisconsin Farm Support Program, including $50 million in direct payments to farmers in support of the agricultural sector during the COVID-19 pandemic and a $15-million Food Security Initiative to combat hunger in Wisconsin.
The funding is part of the money allocated to Wisconsin through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
“The governor reaffirmed his commitment to using federal funding from the CARES Act to support agriculture,” Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski said in a May 21 ag media conference call. In addition to the direct payments to farmers, Romanski said, Evers also saw a way to assist farmers through the hunger initiative by, “connecting the dots between Wisconsin producers, Wisconsin processors to Wisconsin consumers by helping those who are food insecure.”
Farm groups were quick to applaud the announcement, including the eight — Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, Wisconsin Soybean Association, Wisconsin Pork Association, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, and Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association — that last month sent a letter to Evers making a case for $50 million in aid after calculating the economic impact of the pandemic on agricultural sectors.
“The pandemic’s crushing economic effects on our commodity markets are unprecedented. The crisis severely twisted our supply chains, devastated our labor force and created anxiety for our customers. COVID-19 will likely bankrupt many multi-generational farms in Wisconsin,” the groups said in a news release. “We know that these payments will not make up what our farmers have lost financially. However, this assistance will provide support to help them cash flow and continue their vital mission of providing food to our nation during this crisis.”
Farmers will have to apply for the aid through the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, which is working with DATCP. Farm support payments could begin arriving as early as June.
“Farmers have asked for help, and this direct aid is meant to aid the farmers who are the foundation of our food system,” Evers said in a news release. “Farmers also serve as the backbone of many of Wisconsin’s local rural economies, and these direct payments will help revitalize local economies and jump-start Wisconsin’s food supply chain, which has been significantly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. ... I look forward to getting this relief into the hands of farmers around the state.”
Romanski said an announcement is coming on the window of time farmers will have to apply for the relief funding and that funding will not be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.
“We want to find a way to get the funds in the hands of farmers as quickly as possible,” Romanski said. “Wisconsin’s got a diverse agriculture industry, and we’ve engaged that diversity in this discussion (of how funds will be divided). Our goal is to identify a way we can get the dollars out so it goes to all farmers.”
A portion of the $15 million funding with the Food Security Initiative will go toward helping food banks, pantries, and other nonprofit organizations fighting food insecurity adapt to challenges posed by the COVID-19 public health crisis. This may include adjustments to public health and social distancing guidelines, such as curbside pickup or delivery services, purchasing prepared meals from local restaurants for distribution, as well as other expenses that are being incurred by these organizations as they continue to provide services to families in need. The initiative will emphasize the importance of prioritizing the use of Wisconsin products wherever possible in feeding citizens who find themselves in need of support.
Additional funding from the Food Security Initiative will help food banks, pantries, and other nonprofit organizations purchase, process, and/or store Wisconsin agricultural products for distribution to local consumers in need. This section of the Food Security Initiative will help ensure that the funding provided in the federal CARES Act goes to help Wisconsin organizations distribute nutritious Wisconsin food products to Wisconsin consumers who need them most.
“During this difficult time, people across our state don’t have enough to eat in a state that helps feed the entire country,” Evers said. “Connecting the dots between struggling food producers with organizations that are working to address food insecurity requires a coordinated effort — one that draws upon the ingenuity of our residents and their devotion to their neighbors and communities.
“Our farmers and agribusinesses have never wavered in their commitment to providing nutritious, high-quality food for folks here in Wisconsin and around the world. Now, we’re going all in together to support both Wisconsin’s agriculture industry and people in need throughout the state.”
The Food Security Initiative builds on work that was done in April as part of a commodity-purchase program while at the federal level the U.S. Department of Agriculture was working on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program as part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program. Romanski said the Food Security Initiative is in some ways intended to make up for what he sees as shortcomings in the way the USDA involved Wisconsin agriculture in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
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.
“DATCP created additional opportunities by connecting farmers to organizations here in Wisconsin. This is a great way to give that a boost while we’re still waiting to see how the USDA food box program works,” Romanski said. “How the governor boiled this down is: Wisconsin products, Wisconsin processors, Wisconsin distribution networks, Wisconsin consumers. That’s connecting the dots all the way through the supply chain, something that we have yet to see how the USDA food box program would make happen.”