Squeezed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pa. farmers look to state, feds for help. But some are falling through the cracks

Image source: PxHere.com
Image source: PxHere.com

(*This story was updated at 8:47 a.m. on Monday, 6/8/20 to correct the spelling of Rob Buffum’s last name)

The coronavirus pandemic is shaking agriculture markets across Pennsylvania, making it difficult for all farm operations to buy and sell products and pushing the state and federal government to create monetary relief programs. 

While some programs have been able to provide a decent amount of money to small dairy operations, some small, specialty producers in the state say they’re finding themselves left out.

*Rob Buffum, 44, runs a farmstand in Chester County where he sells tomatoes, peppers, and other produce he grows on his one-and-two-thirds acre of land. While the pandemic has slowed traffic on the rural road that typically leads customers to his storefront, Buffman was hit by COVID-19 in a much different way.

The day after Easter, in the early hours of the morning, Buffman received a phone call that his mother died of coronavirus in a Chester County nursing home.

“Just in grieving, I forgot to water some stuff one day and I lost a few plants,” Buffman said. “But there’s no crop insurance for ‘because you forgot to water stuff.’”

Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture rolled out the Coronavirus Food and Assistance Program, or CFAP, a $16 billion program directed to give immediate relief to Pennsylvania farmers. 

This program uses money provided to the state in the CARES Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and other existing USDA funds. 

In order to qualify for CFAP payments, farmers and ranchers of eligible commodities must have suffered at least a 5 percent price decline as a result of the pandemic andface substantial marketing costs for inventories.” 

They must also have an average adjusted gross  income of less than $900,000 for years 2015 through 2017, or derive at least 75 percent of their income from farming, ranching, or forestry. 

Buffman says his farmstand brings in between $75 to $200 a week. And even though tomatoes and peppers are crops eligible for CFAP payments, his operation is too small to qualify for any funds. 

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And because he is the sole proprietor of his small, family-operated business, he is also not eligible for funds through the Paycheck Protection Program administered by  the U.S. Small Business Administration, since he does not have employees on a payroll. Other family farms have run into the same issue.

Buffman said this business helps to provide a cushion for himself and four children. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 2003 to 2006 and now receives disability payments from the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

“I tried to look at all these grants and programs, but I’m not big enough, and they want business plans that show that I’m doing thousands of dollars per month in order to even get assistance … but I’m not the only one,” Buffman said.

While some producers such as Buffman are not eligible for these funds, there are other small farms that are. Small, community dairy operations are qualifying for thousands of dollars in CFAP funds.

Mike Stranz, vice president of advocacy for the National Farmers Union, said it’s been difficult for some small operations — whether that be pork, dairy, or a commodity crop — to apply for CFAP funds because they have never interacted with their local Farm Service Agency office like many medium to large operations do.

“There’s a lot of decent pork producers who may not have that existing relationship with FSA to get everything set up quickly to get the feed that they need so desperately,” Stranz told the Capital-Star. . “Even if there are programs available, dollars out there to help people — does that really matter if they don’t know how, or they can’t access the resources available?”

Stranz said given the unprecedented situation, the USDA was able to pull together a substantial amount of money in a matter of days and weeks, rather than the months and years it takes to appropriate funds in the Farm Bill.

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A case study was done by a Pennsylvania-based sustainable agriculture group, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, which gives scenarios as to how much money small, diversified farmers in Pennsylvania would receive through CFAP, given that their crops are eligible. The study found that a farmer growing 20,000 pounds of potatoes and 3,000 pounds of asparagus would receive $800 and $1,140 in relief for the respective crops.

Poultry farmers are currently ineligible for CFAP funds.

Pasa’s operations director, Christina Kostelecky, said her  organization is advocating that the next round of federal payments prioritize smaller, diversified farmers, and for officials to work directly with farmers to gauge what kind of aid is needed.

Kostelecky said more often she’s seeing community members directly connecting with local farmers, which while she said is great, it means an increase in costs for packaging and delivery for farmers. 

“We also need support from our local communities to buy from our farmers and support farm markets, and we need our consumer friends to advocate at the national level for funding for farmers that makes sense,” she said.

There are small loans and grants popping up that target more specific areas of the industry that farmers and producers can apply for. An extensive list of these programs was provided to the Capital-Star from PASA and can be found here.

Gov. Tom Wolf sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in April urging an immediate plan for how the state would be able to financially compensate farmers for coronavirus-related losses. 

Among other requests, the letter asked for funds to purchase specialty crop items, like fruits and vegetables, “to support the charitable food system” and ensure these products are not wasted.

The Legislature appropriated $5 million in federal CARES money to the Pennsylvania Agriculture Surplus System, which reimburses farmers for leftover crops donated to food banks.

Julia Shanhan, a journalism student at the University of Iowa, is a summer intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.