Farmers and ranchers look for help to weather this storm

Kolby KickingWoman

Congress spends $19 billion on farmers and ranchers, still unclear if Native proposals included

Kolby KickingWoman

Indian Country Today

There is no sector of business that has been untouched or affected by COVID-19.

As Congress works to pass another relief package, appearing to focus on replenishing funds for the Paycheck Protection Program as well as money for hospitals and testing; Native farmers and ranchers are hoping to get support also. 

That relief package passed the Senate on Tuesday and will be voted on by the House on Thursday. It includes $60 billion for the Small Business Administration’s disaster relief fund and farms and other agriculture enterprises are eligible.

Last week, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the nation's largest and longest standing Native American agriculture and natural resources organization, sent letters to the Congressional delegations from Minnesota and South Dakota asking for assistance to weather the COVID-19 crisis.

The organization also partnered with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and the Native Farm Bill Coalition in drafting their proposed solutions.

Harlan Beaulieu, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, is president of the Intertribal Agriculture Council said Native farmers have been pushed to the brink since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the uncertainty we face as we continue the work of feeding the country, not to mention an ever-increasing section of the world, it is important that we have some action now that would allow us to make adjustments to our operations for the immediate future that ensure a safe, and affordable food supply,” Beaulieu said in the letter.

In the letter, three solutions were proposed that the organization believes would help Native and non-Native farmers alike.

The proposals include: Automatic deferrals for principal payments on 2020 and 2021 federal loans as well as extending the final loan payment due date by two years; allowing Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to make grant payments to lenders if they reduce current loan interest rates by 2 percent; and change a provision in Farm Service Agency Farm Ownership Loans to allow refinancing of debt.

Zach Ducheneaux, executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, said these loans are currently structured to not allow refinancing on any form of debt but in doing so would create more capital and make for more affordable payments down the road.

“The final provision would change the law to allow Farm Service Agency Farm Ownership Loans to be used for the refinancing of any debt, and significantly increase the capital available for this program,” Ducheneaux wrote. “Prohibitions on this program currently prohibit its use for refinancing of debt. This change would allow producers to leverage their equity in order to have more affordable loan payments in the future.”

Enacting these proposals would go a long way for agriculture producers across the country, says chairman Boyd Gourneau, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. Additionally, the overall cost to implement these changes would be small he says.

“I urge you to consider the following solutions to help us weather this current storm,” Gourneau said. “I do so as a taxpayer as well, cognizant of the concerns we all share about our fiscal policy; and as such, this solution could be structured in a way that it costs the country very little, except for time.”

On April 17, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a $19 billion relief program, though it is unclear if the requests made by the Intertribal Agriculture Council were taken into account.

Secretary Perdue said the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program will help farmers and ranchers who need it the most.

“The American food supply chain had to adapt, and it remains safe, secure, and strong, and we all know that starts with America’s farmers and ranchers,” Perdue said in a press release. “This program will not only provide immediate relief for our farmers and ranchers, but it will also allow for the purchase and distribution of our agricultural abundance to help our fellow Americans in need.”

One thing is certain, the more than 80,000 Native farmers and ranchers hope this program’s money doesn’t run dry in two weeks time as the Paycheck Protection Program did.

Only time will tell.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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