Updated: Aug 29
Series 2: Farming During COVID, Episode 3
For the past six weeks farmers have been scrambling to provide relief and security for us, while at the same time trying to save their businesses. You've heard from farmers about how they have shifted their businesses, making changes they never expected. Finding new markets. Updating safety protocols. Expanding their CSAs. Delivering directly to front porches. Helping other farmers. Pooling resources.
You've heard about how consumers are connecting more readily with their local farmers and how they are walking a mile in a farmer's shoes as they try to raise chickens for eggs, grow their own vegetables and make their own bread and other products in the tradition of homesteading. Being closer to a farmer in one way or another leads to a deeper sense of security.
Maybe you have also seen headlines about Congressional allocations of funds for COVID relief across the board. Some of that is earmarked for farmers. And with all that farmers are trying to handle now -- shifting business models and their busiest growing seasons -- they need help. And they need it quickly.
In today's episode of Talk Farm to Me, we talk with John Piotti, President of American Farmland Trust and Jonathan Brown, Director of the Food and Beverage Law Clinic at Pace University's Elisabeth Haub School of Law about the efforts they are both employing to help get relief to farmers. You can help too. You can get the message of loan and grant availability to any farmer that you know. You can also make a donation to the American Farmland Trust's Farmer Relief Fund. Definitely thank a farmer. They are working double and triple time to get food to you right now.
Want to help Talk Farm to Me find some new listeners? Here are some options (I'm grateful for all your help to get the word out so far!):
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xoxo Farm Girl
Pictured here: Students from the Food and Beverage Law Clinic from Pace University's Elisabeth Haub School of Law at work on farms and farm issues & American Farmland Trust's Farmer Relief Fund.
IN THIS EPISODE We are back in the 20-minute range this week. FYI. I thought I would also mention that sometimes in distance interviewing, there can be technical issues. When I interviewed John Piotti, we were unable to have a two-sided recording setup AND we were both experiencing some very snowy spring weather. Just letting you know, when you hear a word here and there that warbles, I am blaming that on the weather. GUESTS John Piotti, President, American Farmland Trust
Jonathan Brown, Director, Food and Beverage Law Clinic, Elisabeth Haub School of Law, Pace University
Other resources for farmers:
Conservation Law Foundation’s Legal Food Hub is not a law school program, but runs a network in the New England states that links of farm and food businesses to volunteer attorneys. They’ve collaborated with Vermont Law School in VT, Harvard Law’s Food and Policy Clinic, and Yale in CT on this effort. They’re keep a resource page on COVID-19 related resources: https://www.legalfoodhub.org/2020/04/01/covid-19-resources-for-farmers/
Farmers Legal Action Group (FLAG) released a very comprehensive “Farmers Guide to COVID-19 Relief” late last week: http://www.flaginc.org/2020/04/farmers-guide-to-covid-19-relief/
MUSIC All of the music in this episode is by Lobo Loco. All Night Long (ID 774) and Spencer Bluegrass (ID 1230) Creative Commons License (by-nc-nd) PHOTOS All of the photos were provided to Talk Farm to Me by episode guests. Gracias. OF NOTE All of the links above will give you more information about this episode's guests and their organizations, companies and farms. For more content and connections to these resources and others, follow this podcast on @talkfarmtome on Instagram.It SPECIAL THANKS Always thank you to the amazing farmers and farm supporters who said "Yes!" to an interview. TRANSCRIPT For those of you who cannot listen to the podcast or prefer to read it, here's a full transcript. Please forgive any typos. Talk Farm to Me, Season 1, Episode 8 Relief for Farmers During COVID
John Piotti (00:00):
Our relief fund is a drop in a bucket compared to what's needed. I think it's important. I think it's more than symbolic. I talked to a number of farmers for which $1,000 is going to make a difference.
Farm Girl (00:21):
Today on Talk Farm To Me, we hear about relief for farmers in the form of grants and loans from both private and government sources. We find out who's helping farmers to get the support they need as they scrambled to keep their farms running, to get food to consumers.
Farm Girl (00:46):
Welcome to Talk Farm To Me. I'm your host Farm Girl. On Talk Farm To Me, the farmer takes center stage and we find out what they do and how they do it. And no matter how you spend your time, I'm pretty sure you have more in common with farmers than you think. So sit back and relax and I'll bring a farmer, and maybe a cow or two, right into your living room for a chat.
Farm Girl (01:27):
40 years ago, the nonprofit organization, American Farmland Trust started with a simple mission to save America's farms and ranches. They have three priorities, protecting agricultural land, promoting environmentally sound farming practices, and keeping farmers on the land. To date, they have preserved six and a half million acres of farmland across the United States. To help support farmers during the COVID crisis, american Farmland Trust has launched its first farmer relief fund, which aims to provide 1,000 farmers with a grant of $1,000 each. The president of American Farmland Trust, John Piotti, shared his thoughts about the crisis and relief for farmers.
John Piotti (02:15):
All farmers are being hurt just as everyone in society is being hurt by the pandemic. We decided to focus this fund onto the farmers who in March and April we're seeing the most immediate and significant disruptions.
Farm Girl (02:31):
Which farmers are seeing the most severe disruptions? Those who sell to restaurants and to other businesses such as caterers, schools and events spaces, all of which have been closed as a result of the outbreak. Those farmers basically lost their entire market overnight.
John Piotti (02:48):
So those farmers are hurting now. There are some small farmers who sell direct to consumer, who are doing okay. I think there's a myth out there that if you sell direct to consumer, you're doing great because everyone's trying to buy local. But there's actually a lot of constraints on those farmers.
Farm Girl (03:04):
For example, state by state stay at home orders have impacted farmer's markets differently. Some States like Virginia are not allowing farmer's markets to open at all. Others like New York allow them to open, but with distancing, masking and other safety protocols. Such limitations have real impacts on market farmers and on those farmers trying to pivot from restaurants to a direct to consumer model. According to Piotti, larger farmers who sell commodities like grains or cotton will soon experience increased disruptions as the backlog of shipping containers moving between continents increases. No farm is immune to the impact of COVID.
John Piotti (03:50):
And almost every farm I know operates on pretty thin margins, and that means you generally don't have any staff beyond what you need. And so if a few people are out of the workforce because they're sick or worse, that could be incredibly disruptive to farms, particularly livestock farms, where you can't close down operations. If you don't have people, you still need to care for your animals. So overall, farmers are being terribly challenged by this. And the farmers that sell direct are probably being the hardest hurt right now.
Farm Girl (04:29):
Piotti and his team at American Farmland Trust listened to farmers, they heard their stories early in the crisis of devastating losses. They decided to take action to fill an immediate need. They would help farmers with their efforts to save their businesses.
John Piotti (04:46):
There's a lot of farmers out there with great needs. Our goal was to raise $1 million in a month, so we could give 1,000 farmers $1,000 check. And we didn't have any thought that $1,000 would make up for their losses. But farmers operate on very tight margins and this time of year in particular in the spring, they never have any cash. This is the time when they're spending and they recoup later in the year.
Farm Girl (05:12):
Two episodes ago On Talk Farm To Me, we heard from six U.S farmers who had to shift their business models in real time as soon as COVID hit. Many of them beefed up their websites to allow customers to order direct, and spent time off the farm driving farm products to customers at home.
John Piotti (05:34):
And so if farmers were going to pivot, for instance, a farmer who sells to a restaurant was going to pivot and try to do more direct to consumers sales, she or he needs something to do that. Maybe it's a new website, maybe it's a truck that runs better for deliveries. A little bit of cash we thought could really help.
Farm Girl (05:56):
So American Farmland Trust put the word out to potential funders and to farmers, that they were starting a farmer relief fund.
John Piotti (06:24):
So we're on track to meet our million dollar goal or exceed it in our month long effort, we think we will at least meet it. But second, we've received an overwhelming number of applications, 3,300 at this point in time.
Farm Girl (06:40):
Since the time of this interview a little more than a week ago, that number has gone up to over 5,000 applications. And while the fund is nearly at $750,000 now, one thing is clear, there is a greater plea for help than there is funding. Applications close today, April 23rd. The first round of grants will be awarded to farmers by May 1st. To be able to give as many grants as possible, American Farmland Trust is urging folks to make donations of any size to the relief fund, now. The response from farmers and the need has been so intense that American Farmland Trust is considering a second round of fundraising and grants.
John Piotti (07:28):
You have to be a farm that is classified as a small or medium sized farm. So that's a gross receipts of between 10,000 and $1 million. $1 million sounds like a lot of money, but farmers work, as I said, on very tight margins. That might only mean 50 or $75,000 worth of net income for a farm in a good year. So that's one criteria. And then the other criteria, not because all farms aren't hurting, but because we felt it was important to target the farms in direct markets that were being particularly hard hit and in March and April, they have to show us that, that's where they're doing their sales.
Farm Girl (08:14):
Piotti has spent most of his career working on behalf of farmers. He's tuned in to the needs of farmers, to how hard they work, to the challenges they are up against. Piotti sees the solutions as complex.
John Piotti (08:29):
And the answer there is we need a wide range of farms, small, medium, and large. We need a diversity of supply and we need more supply that's close to local markets. And so if a lot of these farms did go out of business, it would be sort of a double tragedy. The direct impact on those farms and the economy, but also the lost opportunity to provide food and more food at different scales, closer to home.
Farm Girl (08:56):
He also recognizes that a similar network is needed to support a healthy and productive farming landscape. American Farmland Trust stepped up to help farmers quickly. And Piotti hopes that helps to compliment other relief programs out there.
John Piotti (09:11):
Obviously our relief fund is a drop in a bucket compared to what's needed. I think it's important, I think it's more than symbolic. I talked to a number of farmers for which $1,000 is going to make a difference. But there is significant funding for farmers in the federal stimulus package, both because they're small businesses and there's a support for small businesses, and there's some targeted money that is provided through the stimulus package for agriculture.
Farm Girl (09:43):
The U.S Department of Agriculture has recently announced its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program or CFAP. This new program includes $16 billion of direct payments to farmers and 3 billion in food purchases. 9.5 billion of this was initially part of the CARES Act that Congress earmarked for farmers. But the USDA estimated that most farmers wouldn't see that relief in their bank accounts until July at the earliest. That may be too late for many farmers who are already feeling financial distress. With CFAP, it's possible that the checks could be in the mail by the end of May.
John Piotti (10:25):
USDA has not yet worked out the details of how that's going to be provided. My fear is that a lot of these smaller and medium sized farms, particularly the direct market farms, will have a harder time accessing that money, because the nature of the farm, the size, the fact that those farms often don't work as closely with USDA, with the Department of Agriculture. So that's another reason why the fund I think is important. I think it'd be more timely and I think we will get money in the hands of some farmers who will not receive it or not receive it soon, directly from USDA.
Farm Girl (11:05):
The Small Business Administration, or SBA also has two relief funds, The Paycheck Protection Program, or the PPP, and The Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, or EIDL for short. But questions about eligibility, loan forgiveness and amounts are common. In fact, initially farmers were not considered eligible as small businesses.
John Piotti (11:32):
My understanding is that has now been corrected and farms are eligible for those loans. But that's not the end of it. A lot of those loans are based on your payroll over the previous few months. Many farms are dormant or close to dormant in the months of January and February. So if the support is based on your payroll during those months, it doesn't really help much. So the good news is that SBA is thinking of farms as small businesses, as well they should, and farms are eligible for those funds. But the eligibility requirements or the amount of the loan is often related to recent employment levels, which is not a great way to compensate farmers.
Farm Girl (12:24):
Think about produce farmers who pared down to a skeleton crew in the winter, when they are growing less. These farmers risk receiving lesser loan amounts as they head into their busy spring and summer seasons when they need funds to hire more people. The details of the Small Business Administration's loans and help from the U.S Department of Agriculture for farms, are changing on a daily basis. The details are incredibly complex and somewhat daunting for farmers who are heading into their busiest growing seasons, many with reduced or limited staff. In addition to that, many farms are having to change their business practices from new on farm safety protocols, to complete 180 degree shifts from one market to another. A few weeks ago we did an episode, episode 6, about farmers as essential personnel. We talked to vegetable farmer Taylor Mendell, at Footprint Farm in Vermont, who was facing some tough decisions about her farm business, as the restaurants and caterers she served closed.
Taylor Mendell (13:33):
I'm trying to decide if we should change our crop plan so that we're not growing so much salad mix that was intended for wholesale suppliers, if we should switch that over to something that works better for home delivery or CSA style. We're at capacity for our spring CSA. We closed membership back in February, but we have now a wait-list that's growing daily.
Farm Girl (14:01):
Since then, Footprint Farm expanded its CSA or Community Supported Agriculture Program to more families. Now, both spring and summer CSAs are sold out. They have doubled their usual numbers. Plus, in just six weeks they have sold an entire seasons worth of produce to one wholesale customer. Taylor reports that the constant decision making, loan negotiations, applications, emails, phone calls, Zoom calls, investment in new packaging and new found responsibility, are tough to squeeze into a schedule that are already feels like peak season, just four months early. Footprint Farm is not alone, farmers across the country are feeling a sense of exhaustion they usually don't feel until the end of the summer. That exhaustion is compounded by trying to decipher all of the details of assistance programs, loans, and changes to daily business.
Farm Girl (15:04):
Some nonprofit organizations like Farmers' Legal Action Group, and law schools with clinics that focus on food law, such as those at Harvard, Vermont, and UCLA, have been busy sharing important COVID related information to help farmers wade through the resources available. One of the law school clinics that has been helping farmers for the past few years is the Food and Beverage Law Clinic at Pace University's law school in White Plains, New York. I spoke with the director of the clinic, law school Professor Jon Brown, about the work he and his law school students have done to represent farmers, pro bono for the past three years. Now during COVID, they are helping farmers navigate the intricacies of federal assistance.
Jonathan Brown (15:55):
So basically this is a class at the law school where students represent small farms, small food and craft beverage businesses, and small nonprofits that are working on food and agg-related issues. A lot of it, we could think of as small business legal work.
Farm Girl (16:11):
Brown and his clinic at Pace, work with an impressive list of partners to support their work with farms. They work with a major New York law firm, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the New York offices of both American Farmland Trust and the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. Their work includes partnership and operating agreements and help with contracts, such as leases, or financing contracts. They can help with legal labeling issues and trademarks. They even help farms set up CSA agreements between them and their customers. While their work is focused in New York, they are wading through specific client issues that are applicable to farms and farmers across the United States. As a first priority in this new era of COVID, Brown and his team of students are responding to the emerging needs of their current clients.
Jonathan Brown (17:06):
So the number one thing we're trying to do with those clients is support them as best we can, but also guide them to the resources that are out there right now to help them. So in some cases that could mean the funding relief programs, which we spend some time trying to get up to speed on, and guide clients on. And a lot of our clients have given us the feedback that it's great. I'm getting emails every day with lists of resources and all the things I can do, but I'm always busy this time of year. I'm doubly busy, because I may have employees that can't show up, or various other reasons, and we have to change our business model. I don't really have the bandwidth right now to just figure out how to prioritize all these different programs, what programs are right for me, how to access them.
Farm Girl (17:45):
Brown and his team of students and partners are helping to guide farmers to access federal relief programs, in particular, two programs established by the Small Business Administration.
Jonathan Brown (17:57):
Namely the Paycheck Protection Program or PPP, and the EIDL or idol, which stands for Economic Injury Disaster Loan. We've been focusing the most on these SBA programs, because they're available to a very wide swath of businesses and nonprofits. And they could potentially be very helpful, because they offer the potential for not just loans, but also forgivable loans, effectively grants.
Farm Girl (18:23):
For many farmers who have never applied for federal funding before, what they are eligible for can be confusing. And that confusion is compounded in a time of crisis.
Jonathan Brown (18:34):
There's two key programs. The EIDL program is actually not available to agricultural enterprises or farms right now. There's a lot of talk of whether that may change in the future. It's very likely that may change in the future. So because of that, we've been focusing the most on the PPP, Paycheck Protection Program, because that's potentially a very advantageous program for any small business, including farms.
Farm Girl (18:57):
As you heard from American Farm Land Trust's president earlier, it's a complicated equation to figure out how much each farm qualifies for and what circumstances impact the payback. That's precisely what Jon Brown and his students are trying to help farmers sort out.
Jonathan Brown (19:17):
And as far as I know, at this moment there hasn't been a great deal of specific guidance on who qualifies as a seasonal business or a seasonal employer, versus who does not. But I think it's pretty apparent that a lot of firms would qualify as seasonal employers. So like you said, a concern there would be if that's a period of time before the business really ramps up for a seasonal farm, are we underestimating the payroll, and then when we're actually going to need this payroll the most, we're not going to have a big enough loan or forgivable loan to use it for.
Farm Girl (19:46):
Brown and his team are staying on top of the communications and developments, and are trying to make it as easy as possible for farms to get the relief they need.
Jonathan Brown (19:54):
It's quite hard right now, because everything is developing very quickly, obviously. The laws are passed quickly, the guidance was issued quickly and leaves a lot of questions to be answered. So there's interpretations that are coming out. There are people trying to interpret what there's not official guidance on. And the situation I think is just kind of changing day by day, in terms of what people think the right answers are to these various questions.
Farm Girl (20:17):
The first wave of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program did run out. Nearly 1.7 million loans were approved. Some of them were granted to businesses they weren't really intended for. Ruth's Hospitality Group, the publicly traded company that owns Ruth's Chris Steak House, received $20 million in forgivable loans intended for small businesses. A public shaming followed. Shake shack actually returned the $10 million in loans it received through the program, under similar criticism. There are a lot of kinks to work out, but the Pace Food and Beverage Law Clinic is staying on top of details as they emerge. The Small Business Administration is getting ready for a second wave of funding, now. Brown and Pace stand at the ready to help more farms navigate legal issues and relief funding eligibility.
Jonathan Brown (21:14):
So one of the things we tried to do in the clinic, we created a short FAQ document on how these programs apply to farms. And our initial goal was really to do something super straight forward, just for the people that aren't yet familiar with the very basics of these programs. So just let them know these programs are out there, this is the very basic rule on the eligibility. And if you haven't thought about applying, you probably should if you have some payroll cost, because it's available to farms and who knows when the money's going to run out. So it's a good idea to start talking to your bank now.
Farm Girl (21:42):
Over the past six weeks, Talk Farm To Me has covered what's going on with farmers during the COVID epidemic. Farmers are shifting business models to try to stay afloat. Consumers are desperately trying to secure their own food supply by connecting with farmers. And farmers are looking for relief as they enter their busiest season. Here's one thing I hope you will take away from all of this, we are in the middle of this COVID crisis together, while we wait it out at a distance. But on the other side, whenever that is, there are problems to be addressed. COVID did not start them, but it does make the cracks in our food system more obvious. American Farm Land Trust's president, John Piotti, is thinking about the big picture and how COVID might give it the adjustment it has needed for some time.
John Piotti (22:33):
One thing that I think the pandemic is helping make clear, is how vulnerable our food system is. I think for a lot of people going into the supermarket and seeing empty shelves, perhaps for the first time in their lifetime, really was a wake up call. And that's my hope that this can be the beginning of a transformation of agriculture, rather than just, "Oh, I got through this now let's go back to business as usual." We need a robust local food system. We also need a global food system.
John Piotti (23:07):
It's understandable that people are worried and a little bit frantic now and concerned, but there are other issues out there. The loss of farmland, the fact that we are not farming as well as we need to, to keep the planet in health. These are critical issues that if we don't get right... And we don't have a lot of time, we have 10, 15, 20 years to get to really have a transformation in agriculture. So that's my other point. And again, it's not meant to belittle at all the incredible difficulties and challenges we're going through now, but let's use this as an opportunity for a wake up call for so many things that need to be changed about our food system and farming.
Farm Girl (24:06):
Private and public loans and grants in the wake of COVID, are all a part of the solution to getting farmers through the crisis. While some organizations are providing support to farms, others are helping farms navigate the complications of what support they are eligible for. Farms of all kinds are entering their busiest seasons and farmers are pulled in more directions than usual. Consumers rush to secure local food options for their families. Systems and pathways on both the farm and consumer sides are being reinvented. Short term solutions are in the works. But the key messages we are hearing in nearly every conversation over the past six weeks, are that the food system needs fixing. Please join me in keeping this top of mind as we emerge from this crisis.
Farm Girl (25:07):
It's been great to have you along for this episode of Talk Farm To Me. Stay tuned for our next episode where I sit down with Virginia farmer, Joel Salitan, probably one of the world's most famous farmers who was featured in Michael Pollan's bestselling book Omnivore's dilemma. Joel and I will explore the importance of ideas like the larder, and home centricity in a post COVID world. Following that, Talk Farm To Me will take a look at how the dairy crisis is deepening during COVID. Have you heard that dairy farmers are having to dump milk? We'll get to the bottom of that. Stay tuned, keep sharing. Special thanks always to our farmers who are working hard to get food to us during the crisis and always. Also, thank you today to John Piotti of American Farmland Trust, and to Jonathan Brown of the Pace University Law School, and for their support of our essential farmers during this crisis. For more information about this episode, including links to the resources mentioned, head on over to TalkFarmToMe.com.
Farm Girl (26:21):
Thanks for listening. If you like what you heard, drop me a line or give the episode some stars or a cleverly written rating on iTunes. And don't be shy about sharing it with a friend. If you have any questions or ideas about farms or farm issues that I should cover, there's a suggestion tab on the website where you can let me know. I'm your host farm girl. Yes, I have a real name. It's Danna, for those of you who have been asking. Nice to meet you. Stay tuned for a new episode in two weeks, when I bring a new farmer, and maybe a cow or two, right into your living room.