With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on all sectors of agriculture, the USDA has distributed billions of dollars to farmers and ranchers. But a group of Agriculture Committee legislators in the House recently penned a letter to the USDA, because specialty crop producers—those who grow fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes—aren’t receiving nearly enough aid.
In the first omnibus aid package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the USDA was given $16 billion in direct payments for farmers and ranchers, as well as $3 billion for its farm-to-food box program (which has had substantial difficulties). But there have been delays in getting those direct payments out; the letter to the USDA says that only $6.8 billion has actually gotten to farmers and ranchers.
And of that $6.8 billion, only $270 million has gone to specialty crop producers, less than four percent of the total. That is far less than specialty crop producers should be receiving, by the numbers.
The category of “specialty crops” includes fruits and vegetables, as well as Christmas trees, bamboo, and flowers. In 2017, specialty crops made up about 30 percent of the national total of crop sales, and about 16.7 percent of the entire American agriculture industry in sales. Yet specialty crop producers have not received 16.7 percent of the CARES funding; they have received less than a quarter of that. And the food box program has not been a salve for specialty crop farmers, as it has proven difficult to access for many producers. Besides, the food box also includes dairy and meat, which are not specialty crops.
Specialty crops earn far more per acre than row crops, such as corn and soy, but are much more labor-intensive and harder to automate, which leads to specialty farms being much smaller, acreage-wise, than row crop farms. As of 2011, the average farm size across all crops was 234 acres, though half of all American farms had more than 1,100 acres. For specialty crops, that average was just over 60 acres. Specialty crop farmers are also less likely to be white (not by a lot, but still), and more likely to be young.
This is all to say that some of the most important farmers for the health of the country—the ones who produce fruits, vegetables and legumes for us to eat—are substantially at risk, with less land holdings to provide assets or income if needed. And yet they’re receiving far less than their fair share, according to Agriculture Committee figures. That Committee is pleading with the USDA to ensure that these specialty crop producers receive more money, outreach, and assistance, as they fear for the very survival of their businesses.