The purchases, announced this week, will come in addition to the $3 billion the USDA pledged to buy farm products as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program that was announced April 17.
While across the country farmers welcomed the news, they were quick to warn that even when combined with the other aid programs, this won’t be enough to save the rapidly declining industries.
“This is like a down payment,” said Kam Quarles, CEO of the National Potato Council, a Washington D.C.-based trade group. “Clearly, more is going to be needed.”
The USDA intends to use this latest $470 million on more than a dozen specific commodities, including potatoes. Other items include asparagus, chicken, dairy, various types of fish, orange juice, pears, pork, prunes, raisins, strawberries, sweet potatoes, tart cherries and turkey.
Many of these items have had their markets suddenly disappear during the coronavirus pandemic as a result of the closure of restaurants, schools and other food service providers.
“Sixty percent of the potato industry went to food service,” Quarles said. “When that market slammed shut, basically overnight, the supply chain for the potato industry started to back up. And now we’re dealing with a huge oversupply.”
More than $1 billion worth of potatoes are sitting in processing plants and in farm storage with nowhere to go, and the backup keeps growing, Quarles said.
The latest USDA purchase plan sets aside $50 million for potatoes.
Other farming industries are experiencing similar distress from the sudden loss of food service.
Across the country, dairy farmers are dumping milk once bound for schoolchildren, while fresh produce growers are tilling vegetables no longer needed by restaurants into the soil and livestock producers are euthanizing animals they can’t sell for slaughter.
“Anything helps,” said Donovan Johnson, president of the Minnesota-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association. “We’re grateful for anything that could help relieve the catastrophic damage that’s going on. But this is total devastation.”