USDA devotes $6 billion to help small, disadvantaged farmers hurt by pandemic

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of corn fields, some covered in snow, in Belle Plaine, Minnesota, U.S., October 24, 2020. Picture taken with a drone on October 24, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Wednesday it will dedicate at least $6 billion to help smaller-scale and socially disadvantaged farmers who were hurt by the pandemic, along with producers of organic food and other specialty crops.

The agency said it would also increase by approximately $5.6 billion payments made to cattle producers and growers of crops like corn and soybeans. COVID-19 disrupted agricultural supply chains last year, though corn and soybean prices are now at multi-year highs.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency needs to expand financial assistance to more farmers because a review of COVID-19 programs under former President Donald Trump found disparities in the distribution of aid. He said there also was inadequate outreach to disadvantaged producers and smaller operators.

The $6 billion will be used to develop new programs or modify existing proposals using discretionary funding from the coronavirus stimulus relief act approved in December and other aid that was unspent by the Trump administration, according to the USDA.

“Many farmers did not benefit from previous rounds of pandemic-related assistance,” Vilsack said.

Since the Trump administration announced COVID-19 aid for farmers in April 2020, the USDA has sent more than $23.79 billion dollars to farmers and ranchers through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The agency has spent more than $4 billion purchasing food for distribution to food banks and pantries across the country.

The USDA said it will use coronavirus stimulus funds to increase by $4.5 billion payments to more than 560,000 farmers who grow crops like corn, soy and wheat and previously received aid under the assistance program.

The agency will also increase previous payment rates that cattle ranchers received under the program by more than $1.1 billion, according to a statement. Livestock producers suffered in 2020 as COVID-19 outbreaks among slaughterhouse workers temporarily closed meat processing plants.

Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Chris Reese and Hugh Lawson