During this great time of uncertainty, farm organizations are doing what they can to help distressed farmers and ranchers. American Farmland Trust’s Farmer Relief Fund started sending out $1,000 grant checks to 1,000 farmers across the country as Americans witnessed unprecedented disruptions to the food system.
The funds are going to help small to mid-size producers that sell direct to consumers, to food services businesses, or to institutions. All funds raised by AFT are being given with the intent that farmers use the money to support modifications to their business model that will get them through until their normal markets return.
Direct-to-consumer farmers have been severely impacted by “social distancing” policies and closures that have kept them from selling to their usual customers and necessitated they make dramatic shifts in the way to they do business to stay afloat. With break downs in the broader systems, farmers have stepped up and brought eggs, milk, meat, and fresh produce to consumers. But their resources are limited, and often small infusions of cash can make a big difference.
“We are helping in a small way where the need is huge. We believe that farmers who sell direct to consumers were most immediately impacted when the pandemic set it, with no federal safety net in place,” said John Piotti, AFT president and CEO. “There’s no question that our farmers and ranchers are struggling, no matter what size operation or what they produce. Challenges with transportation, labor shortages and even COVID-19 among the processing workforce has disrupted Americans’ ability to put food on their tables, especially those that have been or are now food insecure.”
The range of farmers that will be helped by the fund is diverse, from farmers that sell specialty produce items tailored to restaurants, to farmers that depend on flower sales for weddings or Community Supported Agriculture memberships to sell their vegetables, small grass-fed beef operations that sell to local butcher shops and farmers that market all kinds of products through farm to school programs.
Here are examples of farmers who have received grant funds:
On March 27, Billy Salmon, owner of Banks Mountain Beef, had 70 brood cows on 450 acres and over a dozen calves on feed that would have been ready for processing in 30–60 days. Billy direct-markets grass-fed, non-GMO-grain-finished beef to restaurants and butcher shops in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia. Billy’s sales dropped to zero with the COVID-19 outbreak. “I don’t do this for the money. I do it for the love of farming. That’s what drives most of us,” said Billy. “But this is a tremendous shock. I certainly appreciated hearing from AFT, who I have been working with to implement regenerative farming practices in my beef operation, about the Farmer Relief Fund.”
Fourth-generation farmers Brent and Nicole Coston are the owners and operators of Bearwallow Valley Farm, located between the Smokey and Blue Ridge mountains. The Costons have focused their production on addressing food insecurity, partnering with housing developments to deliver fresh produce and most recently with a local hospital to provide a discounted CSA box to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients. Their CSA offering is their largest source of income. With the onset of the coronavirus, 75 percent of their shares got canceled. “We were able to recoup some off that by increasing our presence on social media, but not as much as we expected,” said Nicole. “I know that someway, somehow my family will get fed and this business will continue.”
Hilltop Community Farm, owned by Erin Schneider and Rob McClure, derives up to 70 percent of its income from fruit and flower sales for weddings and restaurants. Vanished event and restaurant sales have compelled McClure and Schneider to narrow their market segment to focus on their neighborhood, connecting with individuals and buying clubs that purchase directly from local farms. “We’re all asking questions about how this will play out, but we think we might as well adapt and experiment!” Schneider said. Hilltop has also been working to expand its online presence to offer the experience of a farm without physically being there.
Alejandra Rodriquez Boughton’s La Flaca Farm grows herbs, chilis, fine greens and edible flowers selling to restaurants across Austin. With the arrival of the COVID-19 virus, her orders dried up overnight just as she was about to ramp up for spring. To keep going, La Flaca is working to make its products available through direct-to-consumer apps and pivoting their crops to meet the needs of their community.
AFT plans to continue fund raising to meet the urgent need to help farmers and to shore up the local and regional food supply.
Meanwhile, AFT has asked Congress to move fast to provide federal assistance for farmers and ranchers, including implementation of the agricultural support provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act under which the USDA announced that it will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers plus an additional $3 billion in purchases of agriculture products such as meat, dairy, and produce.
In addition, AFT is working with allied organizations and congressional staff to advocate for additional stimulus to producers that would also support improvements in conservation outcomes and protect the land base, which AFT believes will be vulnerable to development as farmers and ranchers face growing uncertainty about the economy and their future in agriculture.