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Coons calls for aid for Delaware chicken farmers

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Chicken farm, poultry production

Congressional leaders are pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expedite $1 billion in federal funding for chicken farmers that many have yet to receive. | DBT FILE PHOTO

WASHINGTON D.C. —  As the poultry industry contends with making up for a profit loss last year and a shortage in some products, a group of congressional leaders are pushing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expedite $1 billion in federal funding for chicken farmers.

Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), co-chairs of the Senate Chicken Caucus, wrote a bipartisan letter to the USDA last week, urging the federal agency to move faster through the rulemaking process to send direct payments to contract chicken farmers. The letter was co-signed by at least 15 other congressional members.

“COVID-19 has severely affected the bottom lines of agricultural producers across the country, including many chicken growers in our home states. We are concerned by the fact that these chicken growers still have not received federal assistance since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter reads. “We recognize that it is challenging to determine how losses and payments should be calculated fairly, given variations in the timing of when growers receive and finish raising their flocks. Still, we encourage you to proceed swiftly with making fair payments.”

Last December, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which is a $2.3 trillion spending bill that made headlines by providing $900 billion for a renewed Paycheck Protection Program and direct payments to citizens. But the bill also included $13 billion in direct aid to farmers, many of whom were already financially strapped before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

Although farmers in Delaware and across the world continued to work, many in an outdoor or socially-distant setting, the dominos started to fall once people started to work and learn from home for months on end. For chicken farmers, that meant less chicken was needed in school cafeterias and restaurants, drying up half of its end market almost overnight.

Small farms that raise chickens for processing facilities had to reduce or suspend production during the pandemic, and even led some farmers to slaughter flocks without a buyer for the meat.

While the supply chain has reformed in the months since, the Consolidated Appropriations Act allocated roughly $5 billion for payments of $20 per acre for row crop farmers; up to $1 billion for poultry and cattle farmers; $470 million for dairy producers and $60 million for small meat and poultry processors.

Small farms that raise chickens for processing facilities had to reduce or suspend production during the pandemic. Contract chicken farmers, who raise chickens for processing companies like Perdue and Mountaire, were previously excluded but have yet to receive assistance, according to the Senate Chicken Caucus.

Across the country, chicken farms were particularly embattled due to bad weather and power outages in other key producers like Texas. But as the economy continued to steadily reopen, chicken wings proved to be a hot take-out item on many restaurants menus, which in turn drove wholesale prices for the poultry dish up. Total U.S. wing retail and supermarket sales during the March 2020 to January 2021 totaled almost $3 billion, up 10.3% from a year ago, according to the National Chicken Council.

But even as the Delaware poultry industry rebounded quickly and remained essential during the early stages of the pandemic, even the shortest hiccup sent shockwaves. The Delmarva Chicken Association (DCA) recently released its year-end report that estimates a $3.4 billion industry profit from wholesale chicken sales in 2020, a 5% drop from the previous year. Farmers raised 570 million chickens — another 5% drop from 2019 — and slightly less chicken was processed.

DCA Executive Director Holly Porter said she appreciates the USDA working to fill the gaps for contract chicken farmers, but she was “gravely concerned” by the delay in getting payments out, more than a year after the worst of the pandemic arrived.

“Some growers are still trying to navigate added expenses without these much-needed funds long after other farmers were helped,” Porter told the Delaware Business Times. “It’s heartening that the six U.S. senators from Delmarva’s states, along with a bipartisan cross-section of representatives from our states, are speaking up on behalf of family farmers raising chickens with this message to USDA.”

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