UPDATE 1-U.S. agriculture secretary prioritizes pandemic aid, expanding export markets

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Feb 25 (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture seeks to expand coronavirus pandemic support for rural America, and will prioritize expanding U.S. export markets beyond top customer China, newly confirmed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Thursday.

Continuing coronavirus relief, growing U.S. trade opportunities and fighting climate change were among the agencies top priorities, Vilsack said during a conference call with media.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Vilsack this week to head the sprawling department, overseeing about 100,000 employees responsible for food stamps, crop insurance, land conservation and other missions.

The USDA is reviewing its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) and its Farmers to Families Food Box Program, implemented by the Trump administration, following criticism that the aid was not distributed equitably, Vilsack said.

The agency will continue to accept applications for future rounds of cash payments to struggling farmers under the CFAP program while the programs are under review.

“We want to do it in the right way and we want to make sure that ... we’ve provided an equitable distribution if you will, based on commodity, based on need, based on region, based on size of operation,” Vilsack said.

Since CFAP was announced in April 2020, the USDA sent more than $23.79 billion dollars to farmers and ranchers through the program, and spent more than $4 billion purchasing food for distribution to food banks and pantries across the country.

Vilsack also emphasized the need to expand overseas markets for U.S. goods beyond top customer China following a bruising two-year trade war that pummeled farm product markets and pressured the U.S. farm economy.

China “seems to be living up to its responsibilities” under the Phase 1 trade deal that included promises by Beijing to vastly expand U.S. agricultural product imports, Vilsack said.

However, farm product exports to China totaled only $28.75 billion in 2020, according to USDA data, short of the $36.5 billion year-one target specified in the deal.

“It’s important for U.S. agriculture to have multiple market opportunities,” he said. (Reporting by Karl Plume and Christopher Walljasper in Chicago; Editing by Aurora Ellis)