Who USDA’s farm aid package leaves behind

USDA began taking applications for the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, known as CFAP, May 26, which will deliver $16 billion in direct payments to farms hurt by the pandemic.

Farm Service Agency branches will handle applications.

“It’s been a collective breath of relief. Things will continue to be tight, but this will mitigate those first quarter losses,” said Shelby Myers, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Many industry leaders have expressed excitement about how the relief package will help agribusinesses. But some say CFAP’s structure is flawed and excludes thousands of farmers and ranchers in crisis.

CFAP outlines some exclusions clearly. Ineligible commodities include sheep more than two years old, eggs and layers, soft red winter wheat, hard red winter wheat, white wheat, rice, flax, rye, peanuts, feed barley, Extra Long Staple cotton, alfalfa, forage crops, hemp and tobacco.

Northwest wheat growers say they are concerned because hard and soft red winter wheat, along with soft white wheat, account for the majority of wheat grown in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. State and national wheat associations are calling on USDA to make all wheat classes eligible for CFAP aid.

“We are struggling with cash flow like all other farmers and ranchers throughout the nation,” Clint Carlson, Oregon Wheat Growers League president, said in a statement.

Some major agricultural sectors, like poultry growers, went unmentioned.

“Poultry is the big one on our minds and the minds of our members,” said Myers.

The American Farm Bureau, she said, is talking with USDA to understand why poultry producers are not eligible for aid.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Association, told the Capital Press his members will not submit comments yet requesting inclusion, but will seek aid in a possible phase four relief package.

Other sectors, including aquaculture, cut flowers and nursery products, were also excluded.

“For the moment, nursery and greenhouse growers find themselves in a no-man’s land, on one hand described in the rule as ‘other eligible crops,’ but on the other hand, not actually yet eligible to apply for relief at this time,” Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort, said in a statement.

A USDA spokesman said the agency encourages ineligible producers who believe they’ve suffered a 5% or greater price decline from January to April 2020 to submit comments.

The Federal Register, which allows people to comment on proposed rules and plans, opened last week for public comment on CFAP. Critics say this leaves little time for farmers to demonstrate need.

But even after applications open, said Myers of the Farm Bureau, USDA and FSA branches are eager for input and will be “receptive to any information.”

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, or OAN, said his organization is seeking an easier way for members to comment instead of using the Federal Register, but said this is “far from a criticism of USDA.”

Stone told the Capital Press that OAN leaders had a “great conversation” with one of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s senior staff members this week about industry needs.

Whether cut flower growers will get financial help is still uncertain, experts say.

Erin McMullen, board member for the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, told the Capital Press the board is meeting Friday to decide what to do during these “unprecedented times.”

“I’m really worried about flower farmers right now,” said Sophie Ackoff, co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Highly specialized industries, such as bison and beefalo, are also not currently eligible.

CFAP’s critics say direct exclusion is not the only problem. Even eligible farmers face other barriers.

Although small-scale and organic farms are eligible, trade association leaders say CFAP may not serve these groups well because payments are based on national average prices and not actual losses. While payments based on price may work for conventional and large farms, farmers with premium markets say the money won’t cover losses.

Ackoff said a small-scale grower lost $20,000 on premium-market potatoes, but calculated CFAP would reimburse him only $800. He decided his time would be better spent farming than applying.

Ackoff said young farmers, especially first-generation and minority farmers, are likely to miss out on aid. She said they are more likely to be unfamiliar with FSA operations, to grow for premium or niche markets that won’t show price changes even though losses were great and tend to have limited or no support staff.

“We’ve been advocating for USDA to set aside funds for some of these disadvantaged farmers. I’m really disappointed that hasn’t happened,” said Ackoff.

According to USDA statements, CFAP will operate on a first-come, first-serve basis similar to the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Eric Deeble, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said this gives an advantage to businesses with accounting infrastructure and simple production systems.

Myers of the American Farm Bureau encourages farmers to track every price and purchase date, keep inventory and familiarize themselves with required documents in advance at https://www.farmers.gov/cfap.

Myers said she understands the fear and frustration some farmers feel with CFAP’s structure, but she said this program overall is a big win for agriculture.

“My advice is, as always with programs this complicated, be patient with the people trying to put this together at USDA,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll all get through this together.”

Green Bluff farmers navigate COVID-19 uncertainty

MEAD, Wash. — Farmers in Green Bluff, a group of nearly 40 small family farms and fruit stands north of Spokane, say they’re getting far less traffic than normal due to the COVID-19 shutdowns.

About 10 farms would typically be open to the public at this time of year, according to the Green Bluff Direct Marketing Association. Five are partially open and the rest are closed.

Jason Morrell, owner of the 68-acre Walters Fruit Ranch, said the closure has contributed to a sense of uneasiness for Green Bluff farmers.

“I was going to buy a mower this year for the orchard — I’m not going to do that now,” he said. “I’ve got the money, but I just don’t know how the year’s going to be.”

Morrell has kept his restaurant and gift shop business closed. The farm also sells commercial take-and-bake pies at local grocery stores, and that business continues, he said.

He employs 20 people year-round, he said.

Morrell’s main business typically picks up June 1, with U-pick strawberries and cherries.

“If we have a good strawberry crop, we’re usually going to have a good year, and we just don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he said.

Morrell said he’s preparing for the worst: the possibility of never opening the whole year.

“It would be quite devastating for us,” he said.

Teri Story, owner of High Country Orchard, raises cherries, peaches, pears, apricots and garden produce on 20 acres.

“We are open six months, we make our money in five to six months,” Story said. “We have to be open, or. …”

She did not finish the sentence.

She has 10 employees, and a few more waiting for seasonal work to begin. At the height of the season, she normally employs nearly 40, she said.

To cope during the shutdown, Story started an online store and hands out orders at a drive-thru window.

Keeping a grocery of sorts in her store has allowed her to keep her doors open, she said. Most customers stay outside, she said. Those who come in have to wear gloves.

Michael Townshend, owner and winemaker of the Townshend Cellar winery, has switched to curbside pickup.

“It’s only curbside,” he said. “We typically would have more people coming in, having a glass or doing a tasting.”

He farms about 30 acres of Christmas trees with his wife, Vanessa. The winery purchases grapes from the Columbia Valley.

The farmers fear the impact of canceled events that usually bring in tourists, a key part of their businesses.

Story’s store has already lost big events like Easter and Mother’s Day and had to cancel some of the weddings she hosts each season.

“It’s those big things we can’t recover that are very difficult for us,” she said.

Craig Dietz, owner of Big Barn Brewing with his wife, Jane, said his 54-acre farm has already had to cancel charity events and an art show.

The farm grows hops, Christmas trees, raspberries, blackberries, pumpkins, peaches and plums.

Dietz estimates his brewery is doing 30% of its normal business. Last weekend he had about 10% of his normal traffic.

The operation has cut its hours by 50%.

“There’s a lot of unknowns for all of us, still,” Dietz said. “Farmers are forever hopeful optimists. … I believe sanity will override current conditions and people will slowly take back their lives.”

Story would like a specific plan from Gov. Jay Inslee for reopening.

“Give me some specifics or what I can do to meet those requirements and I would gladly do them,” she said. “I can socially distance like crazy in our orchard.”

Four small farms on West Coast receive grants

JUNCTION CITY, Ore. — Four West Coast farms in California, Oregon and Washington were selected Wednesday among 15 recipients nationwide for a 2020 grant supporting small, independent farms.

The FruitGuys Community Fund awarded more than $51,000 to small farms and agricultural nonprofits in 14 states to support environmental and sustainability projects.

This year’s grantees include Rancho Charanda in Redlands, Calif., a farm that grows citrus, chile peppers and native foods; Shao Shan Farm in Bolinas, Calif., which grows Asian heritage vegetables; Thompson Creek Farm in Newman Lake, Wash., which produces organic vegetables, berries and fruit; and Hollyaire Farm in Junction City, Ore., which produces holly, sour cherries, hazelnuts and other crops.

“We’re really excited about getting this grant,” said Ladonna Avakian, 32, co-owner of 80-acre Hollyaire Farm. “Taking care of the land is a passion for me.”

It was raining. Avakian let hazelnut leaves slip through her fingers as she threaded through the muddy orchard.

Avakian co-owns and runs the farm with her twin sister, Heather Paterson. Avakian brings her environmental science background to the farm, and Paterson brings business knowledge.

Together, they run a no-spray operation with vegetables, herbs, eggs, apples, hazelnuts, sour cherries, pumpkins, holly and more.

“It’s so important to us to grow things naturally,” said Paterson, “not just for the communities we feed, but also for our own kids.”

Hollyaire Farm sells produce at its farmstand in Harrisburg, Ore., and wholesales to other local farms and businesses like Junction City-based Hentze Farms.

With $3,650 in funding from The FruitGuys, Hollyaire Farm is investing in bat and owl boxes to encourage natural pest control, building beehives and constructing high tunnels, similar to greenhouses, to extend the growing season.

The farm is also planting 50 fruit trees, and the sisters have committed to donate a portion of the fruit to low-income families.

As disabled veterans — Paterson was exposed to chemical warfare and Avakian suffered a traumatic head injury — the women say they also bring a commitment to service.

“What better way to serve people than to grow food for them and…,” Paterson started, “…to make sure they have enough to eat,” Avakian added.

The sisters often finished each other’s sentences.

Founded in 2012, the FruitGuys Community Fund provides micro-grants of up to $5,000 to small farms with fewer than 300 acres that already have a big positive impact on local food systems, the environment and farm diversity and that plan to use the grant to further those goals.

To date, the fund has awarded $326,000 to 84 small farms in 30 states.

“The grant is all about preserving and enhancing farmland with sustainable management practices,” said Sheila Cassani, the project’s director. “We’ve funded pest management projects, alternative energy sources, water catchment systems, pollination, soil health, so many things.”

The FruitGuys is a fruit delivery company that works with local farms across the U.S., and this grant program, Cassani said, is the company’s way of giving back.

Of the 2020 grantees, 80% are owned or managed by women or people of color.

Cassani said many farms were selected based on their community engagement.

For example, Rebecca Woollett, who co-owns Thompson Creek Farm with her partner, Marcus Intinarelli, said they will use a portion of the grant to teach community workshops at a local Grange hall about how to save and package seeds.

Woollett said the remainder of the grant will go toward advancing seed production, building owl and bat boxes and installing “caterpillar tunnels” to protect crops from rain and hail.

Out of the 15 grantees, 14 are focused on increasing food access for low-income communities.

Hollyaire Farm, in addition to its seasonal farmstand, sells fruits and nuts at a gas station and truck stop, works with local food banks including FOOD for Lane County and is working to fill the salad bar for students in Junction City School District when schools reopen this fall.

“These projects are all things we would’ve done either way, with or without the grant funds,” said Paterson. “But having the support makes such a difference and lets us do even more to be sustainable and feed our community.”

OSU has COVID-19 resources for small farmers

The Oregon State University Small Farms Program has a website devoted to resources to help small farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Access to credible information is important during any public health crisis,” according to the site. “Faculty in the OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food systems are working with community partners to provide current information that is relevant for small farms and local food systems.”

The site provides information about the virus itself — how it’s spread, safety practices and how to deal with employees during the outbreak. It also provides information about financial resources and ways farmers can change their businesses to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the outbreak.