Oregon researchers win $2 million in specialty crop block grants

SALEM — USDA this month awarded Oregon nearly $2 million in funding through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which will fund 14 innovative projects statewide.

Experts say the grants could make Oregon’s fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and nursery industries more competitive.

This year’s projects include fascinating research, educational opportunities and marketing campaigns, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor.

“Oregon has a long history of creative and innovative Specialty Crop Block Grant projects and this year is no exception,” Taylor said in a statement.

Over the past nine years, according to grant program coordinator Gabrielle Redhead, Oregon has received about $18 million, which has fueled nearly 200 projects. This year’s awardees include nonprofits, for-profits, government bodies, colleges and universities.

ODA itself snagged $124,214 for a project intended to increase industry awareness and compliance with regulations related to seed production, sale and export. ODA and partners will develop educational materials about seed laws, record-keeping and labeling to help growers.

ODA also received $103,112 for a project that is supposed to connect specialty crop growers with at least 250 small- to medium-sized food companies that buy Oregon specialty crops.

Friends of Zenger Farms, a not-for-profit urban farm, received $166,073 to expand Oregon’s CSA market with a special focus on connecting CSA farmers with low-income consumers.

The Gorge Grown Food Network will use $66,000 to increase marketing and distribution of specialty crops in five counties and on the Warm Springs Reservation.

With its $95,566 award, Growing Gardens, a nonprofit, will expand gardening opportunities for adult and juvenile inmates at 16 Oregon correctional institutions. The program was designed to provide inmates with healthful food and job credentials to help them succeed when they re-enter society.

The Oregon Blueberry Commission received $175,000, which it plans to use to promote Oregon blueberries in Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. Experts say Vietnam especially stands poised to become the Oregon blueberry industry’s largest Asian customer.

Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network will use $92,043 to help producers interested in selling produce to schools and to expand an online, searchable directory so schools can easily find fruit and vegetable producers to work with.

With $175,000, Oregon Processed Vegetable Commission will develop better crop production practices and new markets for processed vegetables and rotational crops.

Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission was awarded $122,834 to expand marketing of Northwest berries in Japan.

Oregon State University won several awards: $93,335 to stop or slow sprouts from growing on potatoes using essential oils, $165,870 to control cabbage maggots in brassica vegetables, $174,984 to help turfgrass growers handle regulatory burdens imposed by greenhouse gas reduction programs, $162,794 to find alternatives to chlorpyrifos for growers who rely on it and $172,918 to turn waste byproducts from beverage-making — such as pomace, spent grains and fibers leftover from alcohol-making processes — into sustainable packaging containers.

ODA says the funds awarded this year will help Oregon producers and processors “face current and future challenges.”

Some farmers frustrated by conservation program rule change

The Trump administration this month made several key changes to USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program rule in the Federal Register — changes some farmers like and others don’t.

Advocates say the rule change will incentivize producers to expand conservation activities. Critics say the new rule tends to favor larger farms, leaving small and midsized farms unrewarded for conservation efforts.

CSP, a popular program run by USDA in all 50 states and established by the 2018 Farm Bill, offers financial incentives to farms that make conservation efforts, such as developing wildlife habitat, improving grazing conditions and sequestering carbon.

Since last November, USDA records show the agency received some 600 comments on the interim final rule. Based on that feedback, USDA staffers say they changed the rule. The changes include prioritizing some conservation goals over others, rewarding new conservation efforts more than existing ones and changing payment rates.

“The rule change calls into question whether the program exists solely to have an environmental outcome or if its purpose is to support farmers who are doing the right thing,” said Eric Deeble, policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “I think those separate goals have to be balanced because these are taxpayer dollars. But the new rule isn’t balanced.”

Deeble called the rule change a “slap in the face” to small producers. He said farms with existing conservation efforts will receive significantly less support according to the changed rule than farms that have few or no conservation efforts in place but choose to make one new change.

“The rule places too much priority on new and big. I’d prefer a more thoughtful rule that rewards both existing and new efforts, and also considers farms of all sizes,” said Deeble.

Small farm leaders have expressed concern that the new rule rewards changes to large acreage or livestock numbers more than the faithful work of some small farms.

The new rule also leaves minimum payment rates ambiguous. In its original form, the rule awarded small farms a minimum of $1,500 per year if that farm met certain conservation benchmarks.

Now, experts say, the new rule may not set a minimum payment amount. Industry leaders say they fear small farms may invest in conservation infrastructure expecting to get reimbursed, but may not receive what they need to make it worth their time and money.

But some policy experts say the favoritism shown toward larger farms in the new rule makes sense. Realistically, they say, one large farm making conservation changes will likely have a much bigger impact on the environment than dozens of small farms making the same changes. The new incentive structure, therefore, is weighted toward large producers.

A USDA spokeswoman said the program has already been successful in helping farms reach conservation goals across the U.S.

In a statement, Kevin Norton, acting chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the final rule aligns better with the agency’s other existing conservation programs and will “help farmers put more robust conservation activities in place.”

Indoor farmer grows his greens vertically

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Ken Kaneko, founder of Forward Greens, recalls the first time he saw a vertical farm.

Kaneko was a tech scientist for Intel at the time, on a business trip to Japan. When he stumbled upon a Japanese vertical farm — plants stacked high to the ceiling — Kaneko said he remembers being amazed.

Back in the U.S., he researched indoor vertical farming. In 2017, he incorporated in Vancouver, Wash., and in 2018, he started selling microgreens to grocery stores across the Pacific Northwest.

Kaneko said the business is an intersection of his passions. He said he loves salad and is able to use skills he learned from the tech world.

“I’m not doing technology for the sake of technology. Every design has a reason,” he said.

Kaneko’s vertical farm is one of just a handful like it in the West.

Globally, vertical farming is taking root. “Plant factories” filled with vertically stacked shelves are gaining popularity in the Netherlands, Japan, Scotland and other nations. But experts say the U.S. isn’t likely to adopt vertical farming on a wide scale anytime soon.

“The Netherlands and Japan are small countries with relatively high populations. Here in America, we’ve got all kinds of space. Especially here in the West, there’s so much room. I’m betting for a while, it’s still going to be easier and cheaper to go wide instead of going tall,” said Mykl Nelson, instructor of urban agriculture at Oregon State University.

But for Kaneko and a few other pioneers in the Pacific Northwest, growing vertical has its perks.

The classic appeal, experts say, is that for urban dwellers, the greens are as local and fresh as it gets. Kaneko’s greens are shipped from 1 to 150 miles, whereas greens from Arizona or California may be shipped more than 2,000 miles to Portland.

Advocates also tout vertical farming as more “sustainable.” Kaneko said his greens use 95% less water, 99% less land and 100% fewer pesticides than conventional greens grown outdoors.

Nelson of OSU added that vertical farms also have more control over “weather” conditions and shorter harvest turn-around times.

Consumers are taking notice.

Jeff Fairchild, grocery buyer for New Seasons Market in Portland, said he has seen an increase in interest from shoppers.

Fairchild said the total market share, however, remains small. The microgreens may be delicate, delicious and locally grown, he said, but they still have to compete with big, crunchy heads of lettuce from places like Salinas, Calif.

And vertical farming, experts say, has other downsides. OSU’s Nelson said LED lighting, though decreasing in cost, is still expensive, and while vertical farmers are typically more sustainable in water use, their higher electricity use can translate into higher carbon emissions.

“Sustainability is kind of a nebulous thing because right now it’s really vague,” said Nelson.

Kaneko remains excited by the positive consumer response. His team produces about 500 pounds of greens a day, and Kaneko hopes to reach 1,500 pounds per day in the next few years as he expands into more stores.

Focusing on preserving farms

PORTLAND — As farmers in Oregon are getting older, a seismic shift in land ownership may be on the horizon.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University, Portland State University and the Rogue Farm Corps, more than 10 million acres, or 62% of Oregon’s farmland, will change hands over the next two decades. Yet an estimated 81% of producers — whose average age is now 60 — do not have formal succession plans, opening the possibility of non-farm development.

Enter Alice Williamson, whose job boils down to preserving Oregon’s farm and ranch legacy for generations to come.

Williamson was hired in July as program director for the newly formed Oregon Agricultural Trust, working with landowners on keeping valuable farmland in production. Already, Williamson said she has heard from about a dozen farm operators across the Willamette Valley and as far south as near the California border.

“It’s been great. People are calling us,” she said. “I’m optimistic that we are being viewed as a potential partner for a lot of different types of operators.”

The Oregon Agricultural Trust formed in January to increase the pace and scale of farmland conservation statewide. Williamson, who has a law degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland and previously served as conservation lead for the Columbia Land Trust in Vancouver, Wash., said she has met with a variety of growers, whose operations range from small organic farms to larger vineyards and nurseries.

“We’ve had the chance to talk to landowners across the spectrum,” Williamson said. “For Oregon to maintain its rural communities and our local food supply, we need to protect our farmland from fragmentation and urban development, particularly among our high-value soils.”

Statistics from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture show that Oregon is already losing farmland. Between 2012 and 2017, the state lost 340,000 acres from production, an area larger than Multnomah and Hood River counties combined.

Maintaining farmland provides community benefits beyond just food production, Williamson said. Sustainable farms can also overlap with values such as fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, carbon sequestration and recreational opportunities.

“All of that is packaged within an economic generator for a community,” she said.

A native of North Carolina, Williamson was drawn to the West Coast for law school after earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental policy from the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

In addition to working at the Columbia Land Trust, Williamson spent five years as a policy program associate at Sustainable Northwest, a Portland-based nonprofit that balances economic and environmental interests in rural communities, and as an associate for U.S. Forest Capital, a consulting firm that works with landowners and conservation groups on the purchase and sale of working forests.

That experience led her to the Oregon Agricultural Trust, which seeks to protect farmland primarily through purchasing conservation easements.

Nellie McAdams, OAT executive director, said they are nearly finished writing their first strategic plan, which will focus first on farm conservation in the Willamette Valley, followed by the Columbia River Gorge, southeast Oregon — including Malheur, Harney and Lake counties — and the north coast.

“Agriculture makes a huge part of our state’s geography, our economy and just the lifestyle and way of life that we cherish as Oregonians. All of that is dependent on land,” McAdams said. “Once it’s paved, you can’t unpave it.”

The Willamette Valley is home to a range of specialty crops and highly valuable soils, Williamson said, yet is under the most pressure from expanding cities. While land conservation easements can take months, if not years, to develop, she said the trust is already talking with landowners about potential projects and partnerships.

“I think we provide farmers with a tool they can use to secure the investments they have made in their land,” she said. “I think it’s the diversity of farmers we’ve heard from that gives me hope that we are being seen as an asset in our communities.”

USDA starts team to help beginning farmers, ranchers

USDA is starting a new team to better serve beginning farmers and ranchers.

The 2018 Farm Bill directed the agency to name national and state coordinators to help new producers navigate existing programs more easily. Goals include training staff at the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency and at USDA Rural Development to help new producers conveniently access the agencies’ offerings.

USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordinators include Sarah Campbell, national; Denise Adkins, Idaho; Kathy Ferge, Oregon; and Cara McNab, Washington.

“We have been focused on helping new farmers and ranchers, and a lot of things are word-of-mouth,” Adkins, with the NRCS Idaho state office in Boise, said in an interview. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher program aims to “give a broader understanding of what each agency does and how it can help.”

For example, a farmer interested in an NRCS grant program that can help pay for an efficiency upgrade such as a new sprinkler setup could find out about it while interacting with another USDA agency, whether at a state or field office.

“Training is going to drive a lot of that,” Adkins said. In-house instruction is gaining momentum after being slowed by COVID-19.

NRCS Idaho spokeswoman Mindi Rambo said public outreach will follow, including preparation of educational materials available to people interacting with USDA, or participating in university extension courses or other agriculture events.

Need for a coordinated approach is driven in part by demographics, as the average age of a U.S. farmer increased by 1.2 years to 57.5 between 2012 and 2017, according to the latest Census of Agriculture, which also said 27% of farmers had less than 10 years of experience.

FSA in Idaho also is involved in Beginning Farmer and Rancher training and outreach.

“There are almost 25,000 farm operations in Idaho, and of that, the number of producers age 45 and below is about 5,000,” FSA Idaho State Executive Director Tom Dayley said.

He said the state’s young-producer headcount rose nearly 13.7%, from 4,106 as of the 2012 Census of Ag to 4,668 in 2017.

“We are moving in the right direction clearly, but it still shows that we need to figure out a way to make it (farming) attractive, but once it is attractive to a younger person as a career choice, facilitate them to be able to make that choice,” Dayley said.

Adkins said NRCS in fiscal 2019 funded 166 contracts in Idaho to beginning farmers and ranchers, for about $5.3 million on 15,000 acres combined.

The group accounted for 45% of all NRCS Idaho contracts in 2019 and has generated 39% of applications so far in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Adkins, who has worked for NRCS since 2004, is joined on the Idaho Beginning Farmer and Rancher coordination team by Susan Smith, farm loan specialist with FSA; Anastasia Griffin, risk-management specialist with RMA, and Dale Lish, area director with USDA Rural Development.

Each state coordinator will develop beginning-farmer outreach plans, help employees to better reach and serve beginning producers, and be available themselves to assist in navigating programs.

Dayley said USDA in the new program wants to make sure personnel at the various agencies, working together, also can help young farmers and ranchers operate successfully after first accessing programs.

Cooperating small farms may make some COVID-19 changes permanent

Debi Engelhardt-Vogel recently expanded the meat subscriptions and by-the-piece selection she offers at her on-farm store near Kuna, Idaho.

Demand for Vogel Farms meats, eggs, milk and canned items substantially increased with the COVID-19 closures — which prompted some on-farm changes — and remains strong.

Engelhardt-Vogel, who also will introduce beef, pork and chicken bundles this fall, moved to increase her beef supply without expanding her mother herd.

She partnered with Arlington, Ore.-based Weatherford Ranches to bring calves to her small farm for finishing. The first four arrived Memorial Day weekend.

“I’m trying to fill a demand without going big,” Engelhardt-Vogel said. “They have the additional supply needed, so I will be able to monitor supply and go with supply and demand.”

Vogel Farms will also increase on-site pork production, she said. Grandsons Mike and Matt Lester lead the project.

“We’re going to probably triple the number of hogs we produce” to about 30 a year eventually, Engelhardt-Vogel said.

That decision, and plans to soon sell increasingly popular half and whole packaged hogs and cows, reflect strong interest in local food as well as greater awareness of the food supply chain, she said. “The meat supply was disrupted and it had a huge impact on supply. And people didn’t realize how fragile that is.”

Vogel Farms now must schedule meat processing with small-scale local providers farther in advance.

The farm’s meat and eggs are available on-site or through a separate company, Boise Milk, which offers home delivery. Engelhardt-Vogel expects food delivery and curbside pickup to stay popular.

Each August, she begins offering public U-pick harvest of tomatoes, peppers, flowers and herbs. She plans this year to seat customers and offer them breakfast before they form small, well-distanced groups for picking. She has canceled summer and fall hay rides traditionally offered on weekends.

Engelhardt-Vogel and Cathy Cabalo, of nearby Cabalo’s Orchard & Gardens, cooperate on projects through the year. They canceled the 12th annual Corn and Pickle Festival, which is typically on the second Saturday of August at Vogel Farms and draws up to 900 people.

This year, they will instead offer online video versions of the event’s popular classes on topics such as pickling. They plan to resume the festival in 2021, with a lavender garden among the new features.

“So much planning goes into these things,” Cabalo said. “You have to make the call early in the season. There are going to be some sad people, but we will survive it.”

Engelhardt-Vogel and Cabalo also may rework seasonal pumpkin picking and turkey pickup events that draw many customers at once. They are considering offering turkeys at a station reconfigured to encourage distancing, or by curbside pickup.

They may use prepaid sales to reduce wait times. Pumpkin-patch runs likely will see fewer people farther apart.

“I can foresee a great deal of the changes we’ve seen in the past few months continuing,” Cabalo said. Customer pickup of pre-packaged, prepaid orders is an example.

“It’s easier, and people are enjoying it,” Engelhardt-Vogel said of food pickup. “For people who feel at risk or continue to want to maintain a distance, it is a perfect option.”

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.”

Farmers join rush for SBA relief loans

Farmers and agribusiness owners across the U.S. are racing to apply at banks, credit unions and agricultural lenders for small business loans that are part of a COVID-19 federal relief package — before the money runs out.

The Payment Protection Program, run by the U.S. Small Business Administration, authorizes up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to support payroll so small businesses can keep workers employed during the pandemic.

The program is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Congress passed and the president signed March 27 to stimulate a virus-crippled economy.

The aid comes at a critical time when farms — especially those wracked by lost profits from displaced restaurant and wholesale markets — are hurting, industry leaders say. But because demand for PPP loans has been enormous, the loan pool is quickly evaporating.

“We expect the money to run out by the end of the week unless Congress puts more in the system,” said Tom Van Hoose, president and CEO of the Farm Credit Council, the national trade association for 72 farm credit system lenders across the U.S.

Monday, the Paycheck Protection Program had already approved 880,000 applications totaling $217 billion, or 62% of allocated dollars, according to SBA figures.

Within just 36 hours of launching PPP, Columbia Bank, a commercial bank with locations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, received more loan requests than would typically be received in six to eight months and can handle no new applications, said a spokesperson.

“A lot of anxious farmers want to apply,” said Mark Hayes, spokesperson for the Farm Credit Council.

PPP loans are not just for agriculture. Across sectors, small businesses with fewer than 500 employees are eligible to apply.

According to SBA, businesses can apply for a loan up to 2 1/2 times their monthly payroll — enough to keep their workers employed two more months.

SBA will forgive all PPP loans if a business keeps all its employees on payroll for eight weeks and at least 75% of the loan is used for payroll. The remainder can be used for utilities, rent or mortgage interest. If a business breaks a requirement, the aid converts to a two-year loan at 1% interest.

Experts say non-agricultural lenders were typically first to get applications processed.

Hayes said this is because many banks and credit unions were already SBA lenders and could start immediate processing, while the farm credit system was new to working with SBA and “had a lot of government agency hurdles to get through.”

Van Hoose estimates only 20 to 25 of the 72 farm credit programs are ready to process applications.

“It’s been chaotic,” said Van Hoose. “Really, our lenders are just getting started right when the money is about to run out.”

The Farm Credit Council encourages farmers to consult with their local agricultural lenders, but said farmers with relationships with commercial SBA-lender banks should apply there first.

Although applications won’t be processed once money runs out, the Farm Credit Council encourages farms to apply anyway so they will be at the top of the queue if Congress approves more money later.

Van Hoose and Hayes say they hope Congress will recognize agricultural industry needs and increase loan resources.

“Farms have been hurting for a long time, and now they’re really hurting in this pandemic,” said Hayes. “This is timely assistance, but it’s a finite pool of money and I hope more help is on the way.”