For years, federal agriculture funding programs took a one-size-fits-all approach, but thanks to United States Department of Agriculture policy changes over the last couple of years, agencies are better able to help a wider range of farmers and farming operations — including those in Maine.
“It’s surprising how many people are not aware of what we can do to help,” Amanda May, program specialist with the federal Farm Services Agency, said. “When they do finally find and contact us, they will say they wish they had known about us sooner.”
That’s because, according to May and her colleagues, federal agricultural assistance programs for decades were tailored to meet the needs of the larger farms in midwestern states, leaving smaller farmers in the dust.
But as the face of agriculture has changed so, too, have the programs that have adapted to fit the needs of those smaller, more diversified farm operations.
Many of the changes came as part of the federal Agriculture Act of 2014, more commonly known as “the 2014 farm bill,” according to Sherry Hamel, executive officer with the Farm Services Agency.
“Our loan programs are a great example,” Hamel said. “Our ‘microloan’ program now makes it easier for new and smaller farmers to get loans they did not qualify for before 2014.”
Capped at $50,000, these microloans can be used for expenses associated with crops, annual operating expenses, livestock purchases or equipment, Hamel said.
Microloans also can be used for land purchases, Hamel said, and unlike the earlier loan programs, there does not need to be buildings already on the land.
“This really can open the door for new farmers to purchase acreage and have their own land,” she said. “Under the old loan programs, there had to be farm buildings already on the property for the land to qualify [for a loan], but under this new microloan program, there is more flexibility, [and] it is really opening things up for a new group of farmers.”
There also have been significant changes to the federal “noninsurable crop assistance program,” May said. According to May, federal crop insurance is available only on certain crops on a county-by-county basis. For example, in Aroostook County, potatoes, which are the largest crop in northern Maine, are eligible but strawberries are not.
That’s where the noninsurable crop assistance program comes in by providing financial relief when these noninsurable crops suffer catastrophic losses, but before 2014, that coverage was limited to 50 percent of the total planted crop.
Thanks to the farm bill, May said, the noninsurable crop assistance program not only covers 100 percent of the crops, but it is paying out more for any losses.
“As more farms diversify in Maine, that really comes into play,” she said. “We have seen a huge uptick in [noninsurable crop assistance program] crops in our state [because] it can cover so much beyond traditional crops, including aquaculture operations.”
Noninsurable crop assistance program relief also is based on how the lost crops would have been marketed, May said.
“Before there was a real one-price-fits-all approach,” she said. “Now we look at if the crops were going to be priced as organic, or wholesale or under specific contracts.”
Storage is another area that is changing with the times, May said.
Before 2014, only storage for commodity crops such as grain could be funded through the federal Farm Storage Loan Program.
“That program has really morphed,” Robby McCurry, Farm Service Agency program specialist in Aroostook County, said. “Now it can fund everything from storage of trucks to storage of any equipment used to handle or harvest crops.”
The loans have moved far beyond funding grain storage facilities, May said.
“Now they can be used for storage for fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, cheese, maple sap or cut flowers,” she said. “Pretty much if you can dream it, we can lend you money to put up a storage facility for it, [and] that has really opened things up for Maine farmers.”
May, who grew up on a dairy farm, said with Maine’s farms increasingly diversifying and with new, younger farmers entering the profession, her office wants them to know about the programs out there that can help them.
“Many of these new farmers did not grow up farming,” she said. “A lot of them are not really aware of our office or what we can do. We want to help them absorb as much information and get as much help as they can.”
Information on federal farm programs is available through the Farm Service Agency’s Maine office online at www.fsa.usda.gov. Other resources can be found through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Beginning Farmer Resource Network at www.extension.umaine.edu.