Gillibrand calls for rapid Farm Bill enactment

Rocco Laurienzo/Daily News Calves in their pens were wearing sweaters Tuesday on Horseshoe Lake Road in Batavia.

The partial government shutdown finally ended last week after 35 days and hundreds of thousands of government workers and contractors going without paychecks. The shutdown also temporarily shuttered a number of federal agencies, including the United States Department of Agriculture, slowing implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill.

On Wednesday, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sent a letter to USDA Secretary George E. “Sonny” Perdue III asking for the immediate implementation of the Farm Bill, particularly the payout of premiums from a previous, failed dairy insurance program.

“Because of the shutdown, our farmers haven’t seen a penny of what they were owed,” Sen. Gillibrand said during a telephone news conference Wednesday afternoon. “Once again the Trump administration is hurting our dairy farmers.”

Last year’s Farm Bill, which sets agricultural and nutrition policy for five years, included a replacement for the Margin of Protection Program that allows farmers to purchase insurance against low milk prices.

The bill also includes a refund for some farmers who bought into a previous iteration of the program from 2014 to 2017, which frequently failed to pay off. These farmers can receive 75 percent of the premiums they paid in, minus any payouts, as credit towards future protection or receive 50 percent of premiums, against minus payouts, as cash.

“Our farmers cannot wait another day,” Sen. Gillibrand said.

According to information provided by Sen. Gillibrand’s office, 2,454 farms are eligible for refunds from 2015, 2,455 farms from 2016 and 1,922 from 2017 in New York state.

Asked why the month-long delay was so important when the payments are from years ago, Sen. Gillibrand said it was important for farmers planning their finances for the year, with some large farms awaiting payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“This money couldn’t come soon enough,” she said.

Lauren Williams, associate director of national affairs for New York Farm Bureau, said some farmers did express concern over delayed payments during the shutdown, although not many.

“Across the board, the shutdown completely cut off implementation of the entire 2018 Farm Bill,” Ms. Williams said. “A delay is kind of frustrating.”

Perhaps more crucially, the shutdown delayed Farm Service Agency loans.

“The biggest one was FSA loans,” Ms. Williams said. For farmers, not “being able to factor in any payments from the program or FSA loans was weighing on them.”

Sen. Gillibrand has formed an exploratory committee to run for president in 2020. Asked whether her calls for implementation of Farm Bill were pandering to rural Democrats ahead of the primary, she pointed to her history of advocacy for dairy farmers, including during the drafting of the Farm Bill.

“I’m an expert on dairy farming,” Sen. Gillibrand said.

Sen. Gillibrand placed the blame for the shutdown squarely with President Donald J. Trump, who insisted on Congress appropriating funds for a wall on the southern border before reopening the government, then temporarily ended the shutdown without the wall funding. If an agreement cannot be reached, the shutdown will resume Feb. 15.

But Sen. Gillibrand also said this was just one of several ways that the Trump administration has injured farmers.

“His trade wars continue to hurt our farmers, especially for our fruit and vegetable farmers and our dairy farmers,” she said.

For dairy farmers, everything is exacerbated by continued low prices of milk, with sale prices per hundredweight consistently coming in under the cost of production.

Ms. Williams hopes the new Dairy Margin Coverage, which replaces the MPP program, will help once the USDA starts implementing it.

“The new dairy program is pretty good for our farmers,” she said. “Now that the USDA staff is back, they can work on implementing the new Farm Bill.”