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Federal checks await some but not all local farmers

Local farmers will get a chance starting Tuesday to apply for some of the $16 billion set aside by Congress to help agriculture operations hurt by the COVID-19 crisis. But growers of certain specialty crops produced locally won't qualify unless federal rules change.

Growers of almonds, carrots, lemons, oranges and certain other specialty crops stand to receive direct payments of up to $250,000 each. Dairies and ranchers are also eligible and some processing companies can get up to $750,000.

Some of Kern's top-grossing crops were left off the list, however. Pistachio and grape growers were among those who don't qualify because their crops didn't suffer the minimum, 5-percent price drop measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture between Jan. 15 and April 15.

The American Pistachio Growers trade group said it's reviewing the USDA's numbers and that it plans to appeal if it feels its members should be on the list of qualified growers.

President Richard Matoian said he had expected pistachio growers would be eligible for payments.

"We're in the process right now of examining the data that USDA relied on in its own internal sources,” he said.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said the program that provides money straight to farmers, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, is "by no means enough" for farmers who might experience millions of dollars in losses because of the pandemic.

“Though this program is a step forward, there is still work to be done," he said by email, "and I remain committed to working with my colleagues in Congress and the Trump Administration to examine best ways to support agricultural producers in our community, throughout California, and across the nation.”

The head of the California Farm Bureau Federation trade group said Thursday he was told growers whose crops are ineligible under the new program will be allowed to apply for government assistance at a later stage.

Bureau President Jamie Johansson described the USDA program as complicated and generally insufficient for compensating farmers for their losses.

"We continue to work for increased relief, whether that’s in a future package, and what that looks like,” he said.

Farmers have reported suffering financially during the coronavirus crisis. Despite receiving government permission as an essential industry to continue operating, many have suffered various setbacks, from price drops to major disruptions at restaurants and schools.

The financial harm has not been spread evenly. Consumers' shopping habits have changed in ways that favor some food staples while hurting products seen as luxury items. Also, crops such as nuts can be stored for many months while more perishable produce is generally sold at current prices.

The Almond Alliance of California urged its members to look into the opportunity being offered by the federal government.

“The almond industry has been impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic and this program may offer financial assistance to those affected," President Elaine Trevino said in a news release.

This week the USDA announced its plan to disburse $16 billion that had been set aside in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Since being signed into law March 27, the CARES Act has provided consumers with stimulus checks and given businesses paycheck-protection loans.

A little more than $2 billion has been allotted specifically for specialty crop growers, which in California is the dominant classification.

The USDA set its own criteria for how the allocate the federal assistance money. It continues to accept comment and growers may ask for consideration of crops not already on the list.

Application materials can be found online at farmers.gov/cfap. Farmers can apply through August.

Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Fresno, said the payments will help producers facing higher costs because of reduced demand and oversupply during the crisis. He noted the USDA has urged farmers to fill out their application before Tuesday.

"Ranchers, farmers and farmworkers in the Central Valley are on the front lines everyday risking their health to ensure that we all have access to food, yet they haven’t gotten the financial support they need,” Cox said in a news release. He noted also that the USDA will spend another $873.3 million to buy specialty crops for distribution to food banks.

The USDA says farmers and legal entities whose adjusted gross income has averaged at least $900,000 between 2016 and 2018 are ineligible unless at least three-quarters of the applicant's income is derived from farming, ranching or forestry-related operations.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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