Like many of Maine’s low-income seniors, Daniel Dutil, a retired security guard who suffers from a muscular disease, has had a hard winter.
“It was touch and go,” he said of managing his home’s finances while keeping up with a spike in heating oil usage. “It’s been long and cold this year.”
Warmer weather is always a welcome relief to Dutil’s wallet, but this year, summer could be a little tighter for him than it has been in years past.
That’s because the Maine Senior FarmShare Program, a popular farming subsidy program that puts dollars into farmers’ pockets and food into seniors’ mouths, has been battered by federal cuts and delays.
FarmShare, funded by the federal Farm Bill, gave more than 17,750 seniors credits of $50 each with their favorite farmers market vendors last year.
Now in Maine, funding is in place for 2,000 fewer seniors, with an unknown amount of additional funding expected later in the year. Nationally, the program has lost 15 percent of its funding over the last three years, declining from a high of $22.5 million in 2011 to $19.1 million this year.
FarmShare is the latest victim of federal sequestration cuts that took a 10-percent bite out of a wide range of social programs.
Dutil and his wife, Therese Dutil, of Fairfield, get by on a combination of disability and social security payments earned from Dutil’s years working at Sappi Paper in nearby Skowhegan. They run the household on less than $28,000 a year.
For the last few years, one bright spot in their budget has come in the summer, when each spouse received a $50 credit at Underwood Strawberry and Vegetable Farm, located just across the Kennebec River in Benton.
“It helps you buy other things that you need,” Dutil said. “You can put it toward your medicine or gas in your car.”
Dutil said he appreciated the fresh produce he got from the farm stand and the opportunity to chat with the farm’s owner and other customers over the course of the season.
“You talk and you joke around,” he said. “In the summertime, we’d have corn with regular meals. You might have chicken, or maybe once in a while a good steak or something. We’d have a good salad with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.”
Dutil said he prefers buying from the farm over buying at a large chain store.
“The string beans are fresh. You see it,” he said. “The strawberries, raspberries, blueberries. A half dozen of corn, a few tomatoes, whatever you need at the time.”
This year the federal Farm Bill was signed into law in February only after significant political wrangling, creating a delay that has slowed local implementation. To worried farmers and consumers, the delay has been static, like the state program’s Web page that for weeks displayed a message saying only that FarmShare had been delayed until further notice.
But behind the scenes, politicians and program administrators have been engaged in a flurry of activity, scrambling to get things moving before the growing season gets fully underway.
In early March, as warmer weather began to herald the end of the unusually tough winter, Maine’s FarmShare administrators grew ever more anxious, waiting for news that they could begin processing the mountains of paperwork that keep the program running.
At issue was the program’s funding amount. The state couldn’t begin approving applications until the U.S. Department of Agriculture said how much Maine’s farmers would receive.
For a while, it seemed like the delay would derail the program altogether until U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree raised the issue with USDA head Tom Vilsack during a March 14 hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. The Morning Sentinel had recently reported that local and state officials, as well as seniors, were concerned the political wrangling might stifle this year’s FarmShare credits.
Pingree displayed and quoted from the Morning Sentinel story about FarmShare concerns as she pushed Vilsack to address worries she had heard from farmers and consumers.
“Seniors and farmers are receiving mixed messages about whether funding will be released this year at all,” she said, urging Vilsack to guarantee the program funds would be released in time to help farmers and seniors.
“So far, they’re in the dark,” Pingree said.
Within hours, USDA officials had sent a notice to the state Department of Agriculture with funding information that allowed the state to move forward.
“I’m glad we could get the Department of Agriculture to act quickly and let Maine know how much money was available for this valuable program so it can go forward this season and so both farmers and seniors who take advantage of it know what to expect,” Pingree said.
Pingree is married to Portland financier S. Donald Sussman, the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal and Portland Press Herald.
Even after the breakthrough, the slow release of the funding has had a trickle-down effect that has made it difficult for state workers to help farmers raise seed money.
“We’re definitely behind schedule this year,” said Julie Waller, Maine’s program manager for FarmShare.
Waller typically hires four or five temp workers to process paperwork from the hundreds of farmers and thousands of seniors who participate in the program.
In 2012, she said elders began signing up in the beginning of March and farmers received their checks around March 20.
Last year, the process was delayed because of a similar legislative funding delay. That year, 136 farmers applied for the program and 118 were approved, but they didn’t get their checks until mid-May.
“This year, we’re going to be about a month behind what last year was,” Waller said.
She said she didn’t know when the farmer applications will be fully processed, clearing the way for all seniors to apply — it could be as late as May. The delay has put her so far behind schedule that she doesn’t even have time to take calls from anxious members of the public.
But her phone continues to ring.
“I can’t keep up with them,” she said.
As of March 19, 82 farmers had applied, enough to use about 15,000, or 96 percent, of the funded shares. The application deadline was Friday.
According to the USDA, about 7,000 farmers in Maine, 85 percent of the farming population, take in less than $50,000 a year for their products. About 1,200 of them operate on 9 or fewer acres, such as Linda Bowden, who owns High Lonesome Acres, an 8-acre farm on Brown Road in Harmony. She has been with FarmShare since it first started as a pilot program in 2001.
The premise behind FarmShare is that the government pays a local farmer like Bowden $50, and the farmer gives $50 worth of produce to a senior who, like Dutil, lives on a tight budget, defined as making about $21,000 or less per year in a single-person household, or about $28,000 in a two-person household.
Some farmers might be approved for only five shares, while others might receive as many as 500 shares, a value of $25,000.
At this time last year, Bowden had already signed up 100 seniors. But this year, she’s been calling the seniors on her list to ask them to be patient, because she can’t yet offer them their customary shares yet.
The income-qualified people she talks to rely on FarmShare.
“Especially after the winter they’ve had, most of their resources have gone to heating their homes,” she said. “Fifty dollars, to them, is a big deal.”
The seniors aren’t the only ones who rely on the program.
“It’s important to all the farmers,” she said. “Most all of the vegetable growers here in Maine, the majority are small farmers like myself. Most of us do 10 acres or less in vegetables.”
For some low-income elders, their FarmShare will come late. For others, their FarmShare may not come at all.
The waiting list is likely to be longer this year than ever. The preliminary funding for the program is $865,913, a loss of about $20,000 from last year’s $885,525. About 10 percent of the funds are used to administer the program, with the remaining 90 percent going to the farmers.
Riverside Farms on Route 100 in Clinton is a small operation run by Dolly McGraw and her 60-year-old son, Vinal McGraw. They’ve already mapped out much of what they’ll grow this year.
“We have corn and peas and beans and all the small vegetables,” Dolly McGraw said. “I have early tomatoes because we start them in the greenhouse.”
The McGraws are used to giving out 24 shares to seniors in the area and are anxiously awaiting word that they can sign seniors up this year.
McGraw said the $1,200 she received for the 24 shares her farm offers is what she needs to get the season rolling.
“It’s money to get going a little bit,” she said.