USDA provides ag aid for disastrous two years

The U.S. Department of Agriculture opens applications for new federally funded programs that will aid farmers, ranchers who lost revenue during the pandemic, natural disasters in 2020 to 2021

TULARE COUNTY – While farmers have always had to be mindful of the weather, California agriculture can add some of the worst natural disasters in state history to the list of things to worry about.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced two new funding programs now available for farmers and ranchers who lost revenue during natural disasters in 2020 to 2021. These were a disastrous two years for Valley counties that began with the fifth largest wildfire in modern California history in Fresno County and the largest fire in Tulare County history in 2020. 

The Creek Fire raged from just after Labor Day to Christmas Eve and burned 379,895 acres in Madera and Fresno Counties. The SQF Complex Fire burned for half the year beginning in August and officially ending in January 2021 scorching 174,000 acres in Tulare, Inyo and Kern Counties. The ash and smoke from those fires filled the bowl-shaped Valley, trapping in the air and soil, lowering crop yields and making harvests challenging and even dangerous for farmworkers. The 2020 fire season was one of the worst ever with economic losses totalling $19 billion. According to a UC Davis report, The years 2020 and 2021 together burned more area than the previous seven years combined, and only slightly less than the total burned between 1980 and 1999.” 

The fires were made worse by the current drought, as 2020-2022 marked the driest three-year period in California history. The drought’s economic impact on California agriculture is estimated at $1.7 billion in revenue losses and 14,600 in lost jobs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2021 was the third-costliest disaster year ever, with an estimated $145 billion in total economic losses, behind only 2017’s $346 billion and 2005’s $244 billion. Drought and wildfires represented 87% of those losses.

Those issues were then further complicated by the global pandemic, which began in February 2020. COVID killed more than 9% of the agriculture workforce including producers, hired workers, unpaid workers, and migrant workers. Reduction in labor availability from COVID-19 is estimated to have reduced U.S. agricultural output by about $309 million, according to a study published by the National Institute for Health.

The two USDA ag relief programs to supplement lost revenue from these disasters are called the Pandemic Assistance Revenue Program (PARP) and the Emergency Relief Program (ERP). The USDA will be distributing roughly $10 billion to agriculture stakeholders through these programs. Both applications began on Jan. 23 and will run until June 2.

“ERP Phase Two and PARP take a much more holistic approach to disaster assistance, ensuring that producers not just make it through a single growing season but have the financial stability to invest in the long-term well-being of their operations and employees,” Zach Ducheneaux, Farm Service Agency administrator said in a statement.

Both programs have different qualifications to receive funding. In order to qualify for ERP, a farmer or rancher must have experienced revenue loss from a natural disaster, such as wildfires, hurricanes, floods, high winds and thunderstorms, excessive heat, winter storms, freeze, smoke exposure, excessive moisture, qualifying drought and any related conditions that took place in 2020 and 2021. 

The payments for ERP are based on the difference of a typical year of gross revenue versus the “disaster year,” which began in 2020. This approach is to supplement any loss to the extent that each farmer needs, rather than giving a general lump sum to all applicants. To those who have been part of last year’s ERP and wish to apply again, Ducheneaux said they will likely have all required forms on file to make the application process easier.

To be eligible for PARP, an agricultural producer would have had to be operating for at least part of the 2020 calendar year. It is also only for those who have experienced a 15% decrease in allowable gross revenue in 2020, compared to their 2018 through 2019 revenue. Additionally, they have to have an average adjusted gross income (AGI) of less than $900,000 for tax years 2016 through 2018. For both PARP and ERP, eligible agricultural commodities include crops, aquaculture, livestock and livestock byproducts that are produced for commercial markets.

The ERP was implemented last year, but the USDA is opening up the program again for a second phase in order to aid those who were not able to apply for the first round. The funding for this program comes from the state’s Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act. 

This law will not only distribute $10 billion dollars to farmers, but also targets at least $750 million for livestock producers impacted by drought or wildfires. These two programs were implemented on people’s needs, and were structured around the voices of both farmers and USDA workers. 

“I want to thank producers across the country, along with the entire FSA workforce, for not just thinking outside of the box but also providing their input—oftentimes to me directly—to make sure that we can improve and enhance our programs and our approach to assistance to better and more efficiently serve all producers who need our help,” Ducheneaux said.

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