June 10, 2021

Gillibrand Introduces Bill To Provide Direct Relief To Small Farms Struggling To Stay Afloat Amid The Pandemic

Bill Provides A One Year Window To Apply For Debt Relief; Will Keep Farmers Operating For At Least Two Years After Receiving Loan Forgiveness

Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced The Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act to provide economic relief for small farmers suffering from massive financial losses due to reduced demand and supply chain disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic. Small farms across the nation struggled to access emergency federal farm aid and received minimal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) benefits at a time when the supply chain was devastated by school and restaurant closures. The Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act will fortify the nation’s food supply and provide direct relief to alleviate crippling debt for the nation’s most vulnerable farmers.

“After more than a year of grappling with financial hardship caused by the pandemic, many of New York’s 30,000 farmers and farmers across the country need urgent and direct loan forgiveness to alleviate their debt and keep operations running,” said Senator Gillibrand. “While Congress has passed many laws since the beginning of the pandemic to aid our nation’s farmers, they simply did not go far enough to sustain small farmers through this difficult time; farmers need urgent and direct loan forgiveness so they can pay their workers, upgrade equipment, and keep food on American tables. I will fight to include this legislation in the upcoming infrastructure package to make certain our farmers are not left behind.” 

“Farmers across Oregon and throughout America work long days, day in and day out, to ensure that when we go to the local grocery store, there will be plenty of food on the shelves for our families,” said Senator Merkley. “We know that the pandemic has made surviving in this difficult industry even more challenging, and that our family farms need help to weather the storm. Passing the Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act would help ensure that support is delivered.”

“Small farms are the backbone of rural economies and our food systems in Oregon and nationwide,” said Senator Wyden. “The COVID-19 crisis has magnified many of the hardships family farmers were facing even before the pandemic, leaving many struggling to stay afloat. Congress can do more to help family farmers, and the Relief for Small Farmers Act will ensure they receive the support they need.”

“In my home state of Vermont and across the country, small farms are the lifeblood of our economies, our communities, our culture, and our history,” said Senator Sanders. “And yet, it has become harder and harder for the small farmer to get by. Even before the pandemic added unprecedented strain and crushing challenges, small farms were overwhelmed with debt and going out of business at alarming rates. I am proud to cosponsor the Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act, which would provide financial relief to small farmers suffering from the devastating economic harm caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Providing debt relief will go a long way to help these farmers stay afloat and keep our rural communities strong and vibrant.”

"After over a year of dealing with a world-wide pandemic, Congress cannot hesitate to pass legislation that supports the current pressing needs of public health and economic recovery. Small farmers were struggling prior to the pandemic under crushing debt, loss of markets, low prices and erratic weather events. Rural America cannot recover without legislation that provides immediate relief and looks to the longer-term challenge of economic recovery and establishing a more sustainable rural economy. The Relief for America's Small Farmers Act begins that process by focusing on the oppressive debt that burdens family scale farmers and ranchers -- producers who have struggled for years in an increasingly concentrated agriculture sector, farmers and their rural communities that are still struggling. In these difficult times, debt forgiveness is critical to immediately support small-scale producers and keep them in business, while in the long term it will act as a down payment toward strengthening local food systems that can revitalize rural communities." - Jim Goodman, Board President of the National Family Farm Coalition.

"The debt relief in this act is going to small farmers who have been left out of the benefits of most other USDA programs - farmers who have had to struggle trying to survive, who couldn't get commercial credit, and had no borrowing option but FSA." - Benny Bunting, Lead Farmer Advocate at RAFI-USA.

"Years of policy pushing farmers to "get big or get out" have resulted in a decades-long trend of farm loss and farm consolidation. This legislation focuses on supporting those farms who have not been able to benefit from federal support the way larger farms have.  It comes at a necessary time: between natural disasters, high input prices and now the impacts of the pandemic, small farmers need this debt relief now." - Edna Rodriguez, Executive Director of RAFI-USA.

“We support the Relief for Small Farmers Act because it will bring essential relief to small farmers,” said Rural Coalition Chairperson John Zippert. “The pandemic has shown that this investment in a diverse and pluralistic small farm sector adds important resilience to our food system. Family-sized farmers, including many of people of color farmers, stepped up to feed their communities during the past year.”

Family farms received minimal benefits from CFAP and have struggled to access emergency federal farm aid which has been allocated to USDA throughout the pandemic. These measures are not nearly enough to support small farms and keep them operating throughout the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. The Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act would directly address this crisis and help nearly 40,000 farmers get back on their feet by providing a one-time debt forgiveness of up to $250,000, across three types of USDA FSA loans: Direct Farm Operating, Direct Farm Ownership, and Emergency Loans. All farms with an average adjusted gross income of up to $300,000 for the previous five years will be eligible, regardless of the  commodities they grow. While many debt relief programs exclude farmers from future benefits, this legislation would ensure that farmers who receive debt forgiveness or write-downs maintain their eligibility for further USDA Direct and Guaranteed loans. Additionally, this bill would ensure that farmers receive the full relief by making the forgiveness nontaxable and provides a one year window to apply for debt relief to keep farmers operating for at least two years after receiving loan forgiveness. Additionally, this legislation authorizes the Department of Treasury to provide $10 billion in emergency funding for loan forgiveness.

New York is home to one of the most diverse agricultural industries in the country and is largely composed of small and medium-sized family operations. However, even before the coronavirus outbreak, farmers across New York and the country faced economic hardship caused by tight margins, growing debt, natural disasters, and an unstable trade market. Over the years, farm bankruptcies have continued to rise, with many small farms just one natural disaster or bad farm season away from bankruptcy. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has become the bad season they feared, as closed schools, restaurants, farmers markets, have disrupted the nation’s food supply and devastated revenue streams for farmers in New York State. 

Dairy is New York’s primary agricultural product, yet farmers have been forced to dump millions of pounds of milk while prices plummeted and processing plants close in response to COVID-19. The current problems are compounded by years of financial hardship which has led to an average of 12,000 farmers leaving the farming business between 2011 and 2018. This financial distress has damaged rural mental health and contributed to the growing epidemic of farmer suicides in the United States. The Relief for America’s Small Farmer’s Act would help put farms back on the path to economic stability, while ensuring that relief is provided directly to the farmers that need it most.

As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Gillibrand has prioritized support for farmers throughout the crisis who have been harmed by the fallout caused by COVID-19. In addition to previously announcing the Relief for America’s Small Farmer’s Act, Senator Gillibrand has called on the administration to support dairy producers and provide assistance for local food producers who have experienced losses due to the coronavirus outbreak. In July of 2020, Senator Gillibrand was joined by Senators Wyden (D-OR), Booker (D-NJ), and Sanders (I-VT) urging Senate leadership to prioritize the Relief for America’s Small famers Act in the future coronavirus response package.

Original cosponsors of this bill include Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ). The House companion bill was introduced by Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY-18).

The Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act has been endorsed by over 100 leading farm and agriculture advocacy organizations, including: National Family Farm Coalition, Rural Coalition, Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA (RAFI-USA), National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Young Farmers Coalition, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, and Farm Aid.

Full text of the legislation can be found here and a summary can be found here.