Despite price declines and slowed shipments when the pandemic hit in early 2020, apple growers have been unable to claim eligibility for the U.S. Department of Agriculture direct payment program aimed at supporting farmers who suffered price declines or lost markets due to the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Apple Association. 

USApple and other industry groups are calling on the USDA to revisit the analysis it used to determine eligibility in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, it announced in a news release on June 16. To be eligible for assistance, up to $250,000, growers had to demonstrate a 5 percent or greater price loss from January to mid-April. 

According to sales data from USApple and the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, apple price declines reported during the time period range from 6.5 percent to 24.9 percent. The data also show that shipping volumes declined 24 percent during that period and a record-high number of apples remain in storage — 26 percent above the five-year average.

“These data overwhelmingly make the case that apple growers meet USDA’s criteria for the direct financial support intended by Congress,” said USApple President Jim Bair in a statement. “But, as of June 15, of the total $2.9 billion USDA has sent to more than 220,000 farmers, so far as we are aware, none has gone to an apple grower.”

The USDA price determinations were based on its own Agricultural Marketing Service terminal sales data, while the vast majority of apples are shipped wholesale to supermarkets. That’s a flawed approach that doesn’t capture prices to growers, according to industry groups from across the country that sent pricing and inventory data to the USDA.

The Northwest Horticultural Council wrote to the USDA late last week to say that without revisions to how it assesses eligibility, apple growers are unlikely to qualify for any of the $173 million in CFAP payments the agency estimated for the industry. Pear growers, for their part, will only be able to claim about a third of the assistance available to them. 

The letter, written by NHC president Mark Powers, suggests revising the eligibility to include the volume of fruit in inventory that’s also been impacted by price declines, not just the fruit sold. Fruit in storage is still owned by the grower, not under a price contract, and therefore faces price risk, he said. 

“Apple and pear growers in the Pacific Northwest have suffered over $190,000,000 in estimated losses due to COVID-19,” Powers said in the letter. Revisions will help the program provide relief to impacted growers, as intended, and “offset some of the additional and significant marketing costs resulting from lower demand, surplus production in inventory, and disruptions to shipping patterns and the orderly marketing of fruit both domestically and internationally that have been caused by this pandemic.”

A record 47.9 million bushels of apples remain in storage, according to USApple — that’s 19 percent of the 2019 harvest still waiting to be sold as the 2020 harvest nears. That continues to put significant downward pressure on prices as the costs of COVID-19 precautions raise costs — a situation USApple said in its letter has “reached emergency levels.” 

Read the full letter from USApple here:

—by Kate Prengaman