Federal funding for farmers largely lies fallow

Dec 7, 2020

Velma Bittick and Tom Gotcher grow all manner of vegetables at their Arena Valley Acres farm on Echo Lake Road in Soldotna.
Credit Jenny Neyman

All Alaska producers are eligible for federal assistance under a new USDA program. But days before the deadline, not many have applied.

This is the second round of Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP, administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Round one was reserved for producers who worked with certain commodities and could prove they were impacted by the pandemic.

This round is open to many more producers working with a large swath of commodities, said Alaska FSA Program Manager Jeff Curry. That includes peonies, a popular crop on the Kenai Peninsula.

“Any farmer in Alaska that sells their commodity commercially would probably have a commodity out there that is on the eligible list," he said.

But as of Sunday, only 46 Alaska applications had been approved — a small fraction of the 760,000 applications approved nationwide. The USDA’s most recent Census of Agriculture identifies nearly 1,000 farms in Alaska, with a total market value of over $70 million.

Curry said he’s not concerned about the numbers because his office has done a lot of outreach to local organizations and commodity groups, like the Alaska Peony Growers Association. At this point, it’s up to producers, he said.

Abby Ala, of Ridgeway Farms, in Soldotna, plans on applying for the program. She said she’s heard producers say they’re hesitant to apply for federal funds because they worry about government control.

“I’ve been in a situation for about 40 years of being on boards that have watched and there has been no government intrusion on farmers," she said.

Ala has benefited from other federal programs during the pandemic, including a grant that helped the Alaska Food Bank buy produce from her and other farmers.

Generally, Ridgeway Farms had an OK season.

“Oh, kind of average to a little below average," Ala said.

Heidi Chay, district manager of the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District, said she’s heard similar reports from other local farmers.

“A lot of Alaska producers did well this year, there was strong demand for local food," she said. "If they weren’t prevented from being face-to-face at the market because of their own health concerns, they might have done quite well.”

Farmers markets and a surge of local shopping this summer helped some surpass their 2019 sales. The Kenai Peninsula Food Hub, an online marketplace for local farmers, saw sales triple this year.

Data from the USDA breaks down how funds have been distributed to Alaska farmers since the program opened earlier this fall.

Because of this, Chay said she thinks some farmers will think they are not eligible for funding. But CFAP2 funds are available to any producer, regardless of how they were impacted by COVID-19.

“We really looked at it and USDA determined that everybody’s been impacted by COVID-19, whether it’s getting supplies in or selling their product, and this is just one way to give them some relief from that," Curry said.

Beyond misconceptions about funding, some producers may just not want to apply. Alaska FSA Executive Director Bryan Scoresby said that could be a factor for some of Alaska’s many small producers.

“We have a lot of very small farmers in Alaska and with the size of it, by the time they go through and figure how much money it’s worth to them, they say it isn’t worth the effort of applying," he said.

Payments are limited to $250,000 per producer. Recipients are eligible for a portion of their 2019 earnings on a sliding scale.

Lou Heite, of Eagle Glade Farm, in Nikiski, said she’s not sure if she’ll apply for funding. She said her farm did pretty well with some crops and poorly in others this year.

“My experience with most USDA programs is that if you can’t afford a bookkeeper, at least, and preferably an accountant, the amount of work involved in doing the applications doesn’t pay back," she said. "And, yes, it’s wintertime, yes, we’re sitting around looking out the window at the snow. But, you know, there’s still other things that have to be done.”

The FSA gave out under $300,000 to 18 Alaska producers in the first round of the program and almost $10.5 billion nationwide.

So far in the second round, it’s given out about $415,000 in state and over $11.5 billion nationwide.

The deadline to apply for CFAP2 is Friday. Apply at farmers.gov/cfap.