COVID-19 upended the plans and businesses of many young farmers across the country this year. Although some were already operating Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that were able to continue with social distancing, farmers markets and restaurants closures had a major impact on sales. And since farmers had no choice but to adapt their operations to our new pandemic reality, they took on many unexpected costs, such as putting in new infrastructure for on-farm pickup, gas for deliveries, materials and labor for packing CSA boxes, and new online sales software.
While the first rounds of pandemic assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were challenging for small, diversified beginning farmers to access, we worked hard as a coalition along with many Members of Congress, corporate partners, organizations, and, critically, our farmer members, to ensure that the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2 (CFAP2) was set up in a way that could meet young farmers’ needs. Our coalition hired seven temporary staff to do outreach to farmers to help them apply for CFAP2, with priority given to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers.
Here’s what we’re hearing from the farmers we reached out to about the benefits of the CFAP2 program:
Thanks to the revenue-based system for calculating payments, many small, diversified farmers were able to quickly and easily apply for CFAP2. Trying to calculate payments based on national wholesale averages for each of the many crops that they grow, as was required in the original CFAP, was too burdensome and did not result in worthwhile payments. Instead, these farmers could simply show their 2019 or 2020 revenues to receive a payment that accurately reflected the higher premiums they receive in their local markets. They also appreciated the many ways to apply, including online, in-person, and on the phone.
“It was a quick process; took maybe half an hour. That was on Monday, and by Friday we had the funds.”
– Stefan Hess from Harrisburg, Virginia
“The CFAP hotline was really helpful for setting up the online account. The person on the phone walked me through the process step-by-step.”
– EliYahu Ysrael from Dublin, Georgia
Recognition and Relationship-Building
Many farmers shared that this program made them feel recognized and supported by USDA. They also told us that this successful experience with federal programs helped build a more trusting relationship with USDA, which they believe will lead to more successful applications for assistance in the future.
“Surprisingly, as a very small scale farmer, this is the first time we feel recognized by the government.”
– Sydney Buffington from Hull, Georgia
Needed Farm Support
Perhaps most importantly, this program met a serious need among beginning farmers. As they are at the beginning of their careers, and often not inheriting farmland, many were in the precarious position of balancing a new business with affording farmland, paying back student debt, giving fair wages to their employees, and affording healthcare.
“We are using the money to get through the winter and planting, especially with COVID getting worse again. We’re trying to improve our online program and home deliveries. We’re also improving individual customer attention and marketing. We’re doing mostly CSA and online sales, and looking into another farm software for increasing online sales, since we don’t know what’s going to happen this spring.”
– EliYahu Ysrael from Dublin, Georgia
“We didn’t have the best year but did OK by under-hiring and working our butts off. So nice to have that funding to make up for some of the difference on our restaurant sales and to invest in equipment.”
– Kendyl Meadows from Groveport, Ohio
The CFAP2 program was clearly well-received by beginning farmers in this moment of challenge and uncertainty. Not only was it a bright spot during the pandemic, many farmers felt it was a bright spot in their interactions with USDA overall.
However, as our seven staffers were doing outreach to beginning farmers, we found that only about 50% had heard about CFAP2. In a survey that we did of young farmers in 2017, we found that a lack of familiarity with federal programs was the main reason that producers did not interact with USDA.
In future rounds of assistance, additional outreach through partner organizations will help ensure that all farmers who need funding know that it is available. Further, USDA should set aside funding for beginning farmers and farmers of color to ensure that they are able to receive funding and that they are being prioritized for outreach.
“We just were recently approved and received the aid through FSA. Without your phone call, I don’t think we would have known. Thank you so much! It is an enormous help to our farm operations. What a tremendous service you offered in reaching out to members.”
– Danny Blank from Fort Myers, Florida