Federal Relief for Mass Farmers

Robert Sondak

On October 14, All News WBZ AM radio and David Pepose in the Berkshire Eagle both reported that Governor Patrick has secured disaster relief from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the 12 Massachusetts countries that suffered agricultural production losses due to this summer’s abnormally cool and rainy weather. Governor Patrick said that the USDA disaster declaration will give farmers in the designated countries access to low interests loans.

Excessive wet and cold temperatures during the months of May, June and July of this year had a negative impact on the growing conditions and production levels of many of the state’s major crops including yellow corn, tobacco, potatoes and tomatoes. For example, New England Cable News (NECN) reported that the Sudbury-based Siena Farms lost 20% in revenue from the 2009 potato blight. Such significant crop loss forced many farmers to approach the Governor for help.

USDA DISASTER DECLARATION

Farms in Berkshire, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Worcester, Barnstable, Suffolk and Bristol counties will now be eligible for loans from the USDA Farm Service Agency. Eligible producers may borrow up to 100 percent of the actual production or physical loses, to a maximum amount of $500,000.00. The current annual interest rate for emergency loans is a low 3.75%. The loans cover crop, livestock, and non-real estate losses and are normally repaid within 1 to 7 years. Depending on the loan purpose, repayment ability and collateral may be available as loan security. In special circumstances, terms of up to 20 years may be authorized.

The federal declaration was the culmination of two months of work by Governor Patrick and his staff along with the Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR)
and the Massachusetts Congressional delegation to meet the USDA guidelines. As a result, the feds will cover crop losses that occurred from May 1, 2009 to present. Low interest loans will help farmers to cover crop losses due to the rainy weather that directly contributed to blight damaging farm crops.

WHAT IS THE EMERGENCY FARM LOAN PROGRAM?

The Farm Service Agency is the loan clearinghouse and processor for agricultural loans that coordinates federal disaster relief loans nationwide. The FSA has offices in all 50 states staffed by professionals who have experience with farming. FSA also works as a processor for commercial bank farm loans. FSA loans have criteria, rules and regulations that are similar to those of consumer bank loans, and they require that farmers submit paperwork and keep farm business records. Yet interest rates for the emergency loans are low compared to those of consumer loans and credit cards. The FSA works with the farmers by making on-site visits to qualify applicants for the program, with the intent being to speed up the loan application process.

The emergency disaster loans provided by the Farm Service Agency must be filed for no later than eight months after the disaster is. The criteria for a disaster loan are very comprehensive and may include that the farmer is unable to get credit elsewhere. To qualify, the disaster must have reduced by at least 30% any non-livestock crop losses.

WHAT IS BLIGHT?

Blight refers to a specific symptom affecting plants in response to infection by a pathogenic organism. It is a rapid and total chlorosis—browning and death of plant tissues like leaves, branches, twigs and floral organs. The cool and wet conditions this summer created an ideal environment for early blight, called Septoria, to grow. Septoria contributes to leaf spot diseases on field crops including vegetables and causes the disintegration. Septoria affected Massachusetts vegetable crops generally, and tomatoes particularly, in 2009.

Phytophora Infestians is a watery mold that causes the serious potato disease commonly referred to as light blight or potato blight. Spores of this watery mold infect tubers (e.g., potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes), developing and spreading to the entire crop when temperatures are above 50 Fahrenheit or humidity is over 75% for two or more days.  Phytophora Infestians contributed to major potato crop losses by Massachusetts farmers in the summer of 2009.

MASSACHUSETTS LEADERS SPEAK

Three prominent members of the Massachusetts federal delegation remarked about the USDA’s declaration of 12 state countries as eligible for disaster relief.

“This is a lifeline for the thousands of farmers across Massachusetts who were walloped by this summer’s unseasonable temperatures and heavy rainfall” said US Senator John Kerry.

“I would like to thank Secretary Vilsack for granting the state’s request for disaster relief. The weather has caused significant hardship for Massachusetts farmers,” said US Representative Barney Frank.

“This summer’s unreasonable weather adversely impacted Massachusetts farmers and I am pleased with Governor Patrick’s help. Farmers across the stare will now be eligible for federal assistance,” said U. S. Representative Stephen F. Lynch.

FARMING IN MASSACHUSETTS

Massachusetts farmers comprise a small but profitable industry, employing between 10,000 and 13,000 people. The 2007 total market value of agricultural production was over $500 million.

The FSA disaster relief loan program will help farmers to recoup their 2009 losses. The loans are very valuable—considering the maximum ceiling is $500,000 per applicant, the farm industry can recover a max of over $3.75 billion.

The Farm Service Agency, which has two offices in Massachusetts, is more
equipped to manage the loan program than FEMA because its staff has a
wider range of experience working with the agricultural industry. FSA employees have agricultural-related degrees or farm-related work experience. This expertise makes FSA more farm-specialized than the general-relief organization of FEMA.

State elected officials should support the farm industry on a regular basis, given that it represents an important sector of the state economy. The public can support farmers by buying food locally at supermarkets when it is available or at local farmers’ markets. By buying locally grown produce you are supporting farmers and thereby returning money to the state economy.

Robert Sondak is a Spare Change vendor and writer. Robert studied Food Science and Dietetics at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Robert has volunteered at the Arlington Farmers Market working with Oakes Plimpton and at the Quincy Farmers Market with Anneil Johnson. Robert is the Executive Director of the Nutrition Education Outreach Project

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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