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USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program can help farmers weather pandemic

By Jennifer Nelson

Farmers have all been affected by COVID-19 in one way or another. Some of us had to drive 50 miles to get the sanitizing supplies we needed for calving season. Others sold out of nursery bedding plants and could have sold double what was planned for 2020 given the demand. It’s hard to plan ahead for a global pandemic. Regardless of what kind of farming we are doing, USDA wants to make sure we have a cushion to weather COVID-19 in 2020.

The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) was developed by USDA to offset the hardship farmers may have experienced due to COVID-19 between April 1 and Aug. 31, 2020. The deadline to apply for the first round of CFAP funding was Sept. 11. Soon after, USDA introduced CFAP2, an additional round of funding with an application deadline of Dec. 11, 2020.

Administered by local USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices, CFAP funds apply to more than 230 specialty crops, including fruit, vegetables, livestock, eggs, wool, floriculture, and nursery plants, as well as commodity crops and dairy. Payments for specialty crops are calculated on a payment factor between 8.8 and 10.6% percent of 2019 gross sales. A price-triggered or flat-rate payment based on acreage, Actual Production History yield, and a few other factors define the payment for most grains, commodities, and dairy. Farmers do not need a previous relationship with FSA to apply, but some payment options may require registering for a farm number.

Todd, a sustainable grass-fed livestock and CSA vegetable farmer in Wisconsin, applied for and received CFAP2 approval in October. He learned about the program in the Land Stewardship Project newsletter. Todd and his farm partner had decided in March to market as a CSA farm during the 2020 season instead of going to the Midtown Farmers Market in Minneapolis like they had the past two years. The farmers market seemed like an unreliable source of income in the face of COVID-19, and CSA marketing seemed more stable. They quickly sold out of 28 CSA shares, and proceeded to go to the farmers market once per month during the 2020 season. Todd believes they made about 40% less than they would have at the market, which was surprisingly lucrative according to anecdotal evidence from other market vendors.

Todd was able to secure the CFAP2 funding through an easy process due to good record-keeping and clear financial statements they already had. Todd called his local FSA office, answered a few questions, and sent in the necessary paperwork. Todd had already applied for the NRCS Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP), so the farm was in the local FSA system with the required farm number. He received his check after a few weeks. He said they will use the money to invest back in their farm business, either for start-up costs for 2021 or infrastructure building. They plan to continue to market through CSA sales and monthly markets, growing to 40 or 50 members in 2021.

Todd’s CFAP experience was an easy one. This hasn’t been true for some specialty crop farmers. As with all of the many USDA programs for farmers administered by FSA, much falls on the shoulders of the local FSA office employees. They are required to know what each program entails and how it applies to the individual farmers. One CSA farmer went into their local FSA office in September to inquire about CFAP2, and the local agent told them that as a CSA farm, they wouldn’t qualify. This is absolutely not true.

Many organizations are working to dispel the miscommunication, and especially help BIPOC farmers access the funding. The Food Group MN Big River Farms offers organic agriculture and land access for historically underrepresented farmers—BIPOC, women, and immigrants. Laura Mirafuentes, Big River Farms Program Director, has had staff attend CFAP2 information sessions. They want to share the program and follow-up with as many farmers as possible before the December 11 application deadline.

Matt, a farmer of certified organic greenhouse nursery plants and produce, also applied for CFAP2 in October. A recipient of a few of the FSA loan programs including an ownership loan to buy his farm, Matt has what he considers a great relationship with FSA. He learned about CFAP2 through an email USDA sent in September.

His first step was to call the toll-free number in the email. They were helpful, and quickly emailed documents for Matt to fill out along with an email that instructed him to contact his local FSA office. He did, and the FSA employee took his information and said the check would be in the mail. When he still didn’t receive the check two weeks later, he called back. The same FSA employee apologized and told him she had made a mistake. She directed him to a different office (the reporting office) that handles FSA programs, not loans, and he was given a time for a phone call on a certain day of the week. An FSA employee from the reporting office did call during the set time slot, then set up a “new producer” account with a farm number and confirmed that she would mail the necessary paperwork. (It couldn’t be emailed.) Matt waited about a week for the correct paperwork to arrive via USPS, and promptly filled it out and mailed it back in. Two weeks later, early in November, he received the CFAP2 check in the mail. The whole process, initial application to check in hand, took about a month and a half. Matt will use the CFAP2 benefit as a cushion going into another uncertain farming season with COVID-19 rates on the rise, an unstable economy, and climate change challenges.

David VanEeckhout, The Good Acre, works with many vegetable farmers through their regional food hub in St. Paul, Minnesota. He stated that some specialty crop farmers have had landmark years, selling more local farm products than ever before. This may be due to national and global produce markets being interrupted by COVID-19 and climate change, leading to more demand for local food. Despite less customer traffic, one farmer stated that people seemed to feel safer shopping outside at farmers markets rather than inside the grocery store. They also came to shop, buying more food instead of the usual market coffee, pastry, and hang-out time.

Some mid-scale produce farms have opted not to apply to ensure not having to pay more taxes. Those with more employees may also have already benefitted from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) administered through the Small Business Administration earlier in the year.

Many organizations including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) have been hard at work to make certain that all farmers understand the federal COVID-19 relief programs that are available, and how to access them. NSAC’s new webpage, CFAP 101 for Producers (see link in box), includes frequently asked questions, case studies, and step-by-step application instructions. Along with a number of other farmer advocacy agencies including Farmers Legal Action Group (FLAG), NSAC also recently published a document titled, “Navigating COVID Relief for Farmers.” The document advises farmers to check with the relevant agency for changes as program details are changing rapidly. Also, documentation is critical to receive funds. Have your records handy and start taking detailed notes that capture your price or market losses.

Farmers have until Dec. 11, 2020, to apply for the CFAP2 benefit. See the resources below to help you apply. The list includes a link to a form to let NSAC and Farm Aid know if you experience difficulties with CFAP.

CFAP2 Resources:

USDA CFAP website:
www.farmers.gov/cfap

Application support:
USDA CFAP Call Center: 877-508-8364
(Select 1 for English or 2 for Spanish.)

Michael Fields Agricultural Institute’s grants advisor, Martin Bailkey, can help.
Email martinbailkey@gmail.com.

ATTRA can assist with CFAP2 applications.
1-800-346-9140 or email AskAnAg@ncat.org.

USDA’s CFAP benefit calculator:
www.farmers.gov/cfap/tool

Farmers’ Guide to CFAP2
Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) provides a detailed explanation of CFAP2.
 www.flaginc.org/covid-19-guide

FAQs, case studies, and step-by-step
application instructions:
sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/nsacresponse-to-covid-19/cfap-101-for-producers

Problems with CFAP2:
If you’ve had trouble with CFAP2, complete this form from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Farm Aid so they can advocate for improvements to future programs. www.tfaforms.com/4828724

 

Jennifer Nelson is a MOSES Organic Specialist. She and her family own Humble Pie Farm in western Wisconsin.

 

From the November | December 2020 Issue

 

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