Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told New York state farmers and agricultural business leaders that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed societal faults, including food insecurity and food supply chain weakness.
Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, described how Congress is addressing these issues, and adjusting policies, during a virtual town hall June 8, hosted by Cornell.
“There is no question during these difficult times in New York it is especially hard for our farmers and our farmworkers,” Gillibrand said. “Already-low [farm] prices have plummeted … and the schools and restaurants that [once] made regular orders have closed their doors.”
Gillibrand, who sits on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, knows what the nation’s farms face because of COVID-19.
“Producers of perishable food like dairy farmers don’t have the option of pausing production, [and they] have been forced to dump millions of pounds of milk,” Gillibrand said. “That is a loss that you, our economy and families across the state cannot afford. … Every farm in New York is hurting.”
Kathryn J. Boor ’80, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, moderated the panel consisting of Gillibrand; Clark Putman ‘87, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency; and Gary Pereira, the USDA’s rural development energy and business programs specialist. More than 100 questions had been submitted in advance by farmers for the hourlong event.
Regarding volatility in milk prices, Gillibrand said she has urged Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to reopen the 2020 signup for the Dairy Margin Coverage program, a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill that protects producers from uncertain prices. She also has asked the secretary to provide more direct assistance and market intervention to reverse the decline of futures prices.
On policies related to undocumented farmworkers, Gillibrand is hopeful that the Senate can vote on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed in the House of Representatives last fall. The bill reforms the current H-2A guest worker program, in order to provide fair wages and better working conditions for temporary workers from other countries. The new law also would provide a pathway for legal status for agricultural workers, she said.
Gillibrand noted that the Direct Support for Communities Act was introduced in the House and Senate in May and, if passed, will support the work of cooperative extensions.
In May, Gillibrand introduced the Food Bank Access to Farm Fresh Produce Act, designed to relieve food supply chain disruptions. And in April she introduced the Relief for America’s Small Farmers Act, which would provide debt forgiveness from USDA loans related to farm operating, direct farm ownership and emergency assistance.
Other discussion topics included: rural access to broadband internet, which Gillibrand called “a right”; SNAP benefits; farmer access to grants and loans; mental health impacts on farmers; attracting minority farmers; urban agriculture; and stemming the loss of farmland.
In closing, Boor acknowledged there was still much more discussion needed.
“We just barely touched the surface of all the questions that were submitted to us,” she said. “That gives you an indication of the burning need among our rural farm and food communities for information of this nature.”