Territory’s Farmers Are Skeptical of Promised Federal COVID-19 Relief

Neat lines of produce are planted at Ridge to Reef Farm. (Photo courtesy of Ridge to Reef Farm Director Nate Olive)
Neat lines of produce are planted at Ridge to Reef Farm. (Photo courtesy of Ridge to Reef Farm Director Nate Olive)

In April the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program would provide relief to farmers whose operation were affected due to the unforeseeable problems associated with the pandemic, but the territory’s farmers wonder how any of these applications will be processed when several of their hurricane relief claims from 2017 have yet to be handled.

The program promises to provide vital financial assistance to farmers who have suffered at least a five percent price decline for products or those who generated losses due to supply chain disruptions during the pandemic.

Farmers in the territory have been told that to apply for the assistance they must go to the local Farm Service Agency office, but only one such office exists in the territory and Ridge to Reef Farm Director Nate Olive said the office is overwhelmed with pre-existing applications for past relief programs.

“We have one person right now processing applications for over 50 hurricane recovery programs for farms that still have not been processed, backdated from Irma and Maria. And now that same office is supposed to process the new COVID-19 related farm programs. You can’t even see the lady’s face behind the stack of applications on her desk when in her office,” Olive said.

Because of these issues Olive said many serious farmers in the territory don’t bother to apply for relief “because there is a big wall between them and the programs.”

“It’s unfortunate because there are actually a lot of programs out there to help us already, but not enough farmers apply to them. Some people mistake that for farmers being lazy, not committed, or not business savvy,” but this isn’t the case, Olive said.

“The problem is the office is severely understaffed on St. Croix and on St. Thomas and St. John there is not even an office. It is only on St. Croix and the office doesn’t even have any authority, they are actually run by an office in Puerto Rico,” Olive said.

Making the problem even difficult, Olive said, many of these programs are reimbursement based and require the farmers to spend money and their time before seeing a dime in compensation.

Speaking to the relief that was supposed to be provided after the 2017 hurricanes Olive said, “I thought we would get paid quickly,” but he has yet to see anything and “there are a lot of farmers in the same boat.”

These struggles between the territory’s farmers and the Farm Service Agency office have left many producers weary of government aid.

Nevertheless, on May 26 the U.S. Department of Agriculture will begin taking applications and the department’s website says the local Farm Service Agency staff will work with farmers to apply for the program.

According to the site all eligible farmers and ranchers will receive one payment, drawn from two possible funding sources, either the CARES Act or the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act. Collectively there is $16 billion available in compensation for all U.S. farmers whose livelihoods have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.

Information about applying for the program and what crops is online at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website.