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Policy Report: Further COVID-19 relief, racial equity and climate change are among the issues being discussed.

Bradley D. Lubben

March 12, 2021

5 Min Read
Front facade of the Department of Agriculture in downtown Washington DC
NEW POLICY PRIORITIES: With a new administration and a new Congress come new priorities for policy, including policies affecting agriculture. qingwa/Getty Images

The first 100 days of a new president’s term are often looked at as the window for setting the policy agenda for the administration. While the 100-day mark may be an artificial deadline, it certainly provides a picture of the administration’s priorities.

As of the time of this writing in early March, the first 100 days in both the new White House and the new Congress are not yet over. However, there are already some insights from what has and has not been addressed thus far, including some important lessons for agriculture.

The first and certainly the overwhelming policy priority has been a continuation of the focus from late last year on further COVID-19 relief. Even though another round of relief was just passed in December, further assistance immediately became a goal of Democrats as they gained political control of both the White House and the Senate and kept control of the House.

The bill just passed by Congress as of early March would include nearly $2 trillion in additional federal spending. There has been some attention to the fact that much of the spending is not directly related to COVID-19 relief, but to longer-term policy priorities and general economic stimulus.

There also has been some attention to the apparent political urgency to pass the legislation before continued economic growth suggests further stimulus is not needed.

In the past few months, the economy has continued to rebound, and the increased optimism now surrounding COVID-19 vaccine distribution has created an economic outlook that is much stronger than when the additional spending was first proposed. That did not stop the bill from passage, and now the focus will be on implementation and impact.

Changing policy priorities

The food and agriculture provisions of the legislation provide the first picture of changing policy priorities for agriculture. The legislation does not contain much additional support for the traditional commodity production agriculture sector, which was the primary recipient of the first three rounds of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments.

With higher commodity prices in late 2020 and early 2021, the absence of additional commodity support should not be surprising. Instead, $5 billion of ag support included in the relief bill is targeted at a new priority of both the administration and Congress: racial equity in agriculture.

The provisions include $4 billion in debt relief for socially disadvantaged producers participating in USDA farm loan programs, which was defined and described as including Black, Native American, Hispanic and Asian producers.

The bill also provides $1 billion for educational institutions and organizations that primarily serve socially disadvantaged producers, including what are known as the 1890 and 1994 land grant institutions for the years legislation was passed to fund ag education at colleges and universities that primarily serve Black and Native American students, respectively.

The topic of racial justice in agriculture and policy responses is complex and is deserving of a separate discussion, but for purposes of this brief overview, it provides an important signal as to the shifting priorities for ag policy in Washington, D.C.

Other actions at USDA also provide a sense of the changing policy priorities for traditional commodity production agriculture. USDA paused distribution of additional COVID-19 payments as implemented by former Secretary Sonny Perdue in December in the form of additional CFAP-1 and CFAP-2 assistance.

While some producers already had received additional assistance, others were still awaiting payments based on what had been announced. It is not uncommon for a new administration to pause programs for purposes of review and potential revision, but it is a question as to whether the program will be resumed as initially defined.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack has noted how COVID-19 ag assistance to date has been concentrated among major commodities and larger producers. Whether that leads to changes in the previously announced additional assistance remains to be seen.

Even more significantly, USDA had yet to announce plans for implementing the next round of COVID-19 ag assistance contained in the December relief bill, or what is expected to be CFAP-3. The shifting policy priorities would suggest a desire to target the assistance differently than in CFAP-1 and CFAP-2, but in this case, the legislation specifically detailed expected crop payments at $20 per acre and livestock assistance based on additional payments for existing categories.

As a result, there may not be much flexibility to change or redirect the support, just some additional waiting for rules and implementation to happen.

Climate change

Another sign of shifting policy priorities is that the first hearing of the House Agriculture Committee for the year was focused on climate policy. While the climate topic also merits a much longer discussion and analysis, the fact that the first hearing for the committee in the new term and under a new chair was focused on climate suggests it will be front and center for ag policy discussions going forward.

Proposals to expand conservation programs to reward carbon sequestration practices, discussions about producers earning and selling carbon credits, and other potential incentives as well as potential regulations are all likely to be part of the debate.

There are numerous other policy issues that have been raised or addressed already in the new year, as well as some — such as tax policy — that have yet to be fleshed out. But the brief list above provides a lesson for agriculture and an important signal that ag policy priorities going forward in Washington, D.C., could look very different than they have over the past several years.

Lubben is an Extension policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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Covid 19

About the Author(s)

Bradley D. Lubben

Lubben is a Nebraska Extension associate professor, policy specialist, and director of the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center in the Department of Ag Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has more than 25 years of experience in teaching, research and Extension, focusing on ag policy and economics. Lubben grew up on a grain and livestock farm near Burr, Neb., and holds degrees from UNL and Kansas State University.

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