Agriculture secretary pressed about pandemic relief funds for farmers

By: - January 25, 2022 3:00 am

A tractor works a Midwest corn field. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack faced questions on how his agency is doling out emergency pandemic aid last week during a hearing before the House Agriculture Committee.

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa who also served as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, said the Department of Agriculture is working to distribute money provided by the American Rescue Plan to farmers who have suffered during the pandemic.

Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican, asked Vilsack how some $10 billion in disaster relief for extreme weather is being distributed.

Vilsack said that about $750 million went to the livestock industry and that the agency is using crop data to figure out how much in payments should go to farmers in the grain industry.

“The goal here is to try to get these payments out this spring,” he said.

Republicans on the committee aired concerns about hiring problems, regulations and the supply chain. Scott said the chemical industry in his state has reported difficulty with distributing materials and has struggled with labor shortages.

The top GOP lawmaker on the committee, Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson, R-Pa., said he was also concerned about labor shortages and supply chain issues.

“Our communities are looking for solutions, and they don’t need regulatory burdens,” he said.

“We are concerned by the lack of truck drivers,” Vilsack said, adding that USDA is working with the Labor Department to speed up the process to get apprentices certified to operate semitrailer trucks.

Rep. David Rouzer, a North Carolina Republican, criticized USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration enforcement efforts, which aim to provide fair marketing practices for agricultural products.

Rouzer was critical of USDA application of GIPSA regulations to the meat and poultry industries, arguing that “new rules and regulations add to cost.”

“Farmers deserve a fair share in the marketplace and they don’t get a fair shake,” Vilsack said. “They have the rug pulled out from them on many occasions. This is about fundamental fairness.”

Vilsack said those regulations are a part of USDA’s business and oversight and are necessary because 85% of beef processing belongs to four companies, 70% of pork processing belongs to four companies and 50% of poultry processing belongs to four companies.

“It’s simply too concentrated. There’s not enough capacity and there’s not enough competition,” he said.

“Frankly, if we had more competition, we’d give consumers more choice, and if consumers had more choice, then I guarantee that’s also going to impact and affect price in a positive way.”

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.