Bill Whitman browses the plants June 17, 2017, at his plant and seed trade booth at the annual Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association farm and homestead day workshops in Unity. MOFGA has teamed with Maine Farmland Trust to offer grants to mitigate the effects of coronavirus to farms that qualify. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Maine Farmland Trust have launched a grant program to help farms deal with disruptions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

With the new Maine Emergency Farm Grants, eligible farms can receive up to $2,000 to help with loss of sales, delayed production or hiring, additional costs for supplies or personal protective equipment or meeting the need to increase production with additional labor or supplies.

“There’s a wide range of issues that farms are dealing with right now,” said Ellen Sabina, outreach director for Maine Farmland Trust. “A lot of the issues are just around uncertainty during this time …”

The state-mandated shutdown of bars, restaurants and school cafeterias has impacted the way farms sell their products, according to Sarah Alexander, executive director for MOFGA.

“Things have really shifted rapidly and a lot of farms have lost sales from market disruptions,” Alexander said. “Farms have had to adapt … sell direct to consumers online or set no-touch farm stands. We started this (program) because farms have lost income and experienced an increase in costs because of these pivots they’ve had to make.”

Farmers must meet several requirements to be eligible for a grant: Farm income must represent at least 10% of household income, the farmer intends to remain in business, awards must be used for COVID-19 mitigation or adaptation, and farms must be commercially viable and be producing food to qualify for an award.

Farmers also must have participated in a MOFGA or Maine Farmland Trust program. According to Sabina, around 1,000 farms statewide are eligible for a grant.

Within the first 24 hours of launching the grant program, 47 farms sent in applications and another organization stepped up to sponsor the grants.

The program launched with $70,000 in funds raised by the Broad Reach Fund, the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, and the New England Food System Resilience Fund. 

Just hours after the program was announced, the Onion Foundation joined the list of sponsors and the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation increased its contribution, raising the total available to $100,000.

“We can help at least 50 farms with $100,000 but we do expect the demand to be much higher than we have available,” Alexander said. “We’re going to help as many farms as we can as we continue to look for more funds.” 

MUSHROOM FARM’S COSTS MUSHROOM

The Maine Mushroom Company of Augusta has applied for an emergency grant.

Andrew and Amanda Olson, who started the farm in June 2019, have had to completely change the way they sell their products because of the restrictions on restaurants brought on by the pandemic.

“Prior to this, the majority of our sales were wholesales to restaurants,” Amanda Olson said. “So the day the governor announced restaurants had to close, we lost every restaurant sale indefinitely within 24 hours. It was pretty crushing, … so we started looking for a different path to the consumer. With everything going on, everyone is seeking out local food services and we previously hadn’t done deliveries and online ordering.”

The Olsons run their operation without any other workers and have experienced an increase in costs.

“What’s really driving up costs is the deliveries for really small volumes of mushrooms and packaging,” Amanda Olson said. “Historically we sold mushrooms in open quart containers, but now we’re wrapping everything to make sure it’s all sanitary, so the costs have gone to purchasing the mushroom wraps and the time it takes to wrap them.”

The response from the community has been notable, according to Amanda Olson, so much so that the company has seen its direct to consumer sales increase by 300%.

 “It’s been overwhelming,” Amanda Olson said. “I think farms are the backbone of the community, and they’re what is pulling everyone through right now as a local food source. And it’s great that there’s opportunities coming through to be able to get support.” 

SURVEY OF PANDEMIC EFFECTS

Before the program launched, MOFGA and the farmland trust created a survey to gauge the kinds of disruptions farmers had begun to experience because of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Alexander, of the 179 farms that responded to the survey, around half had already begun selling produce for the season.

“The farms that had started selling their produce saw a 57% decrease in sales because of restaurants and school cafeterias shutting down,” Alexander said. “But others saw about an 18% increase in sales direct to consumers.”

Sabina said the change in sales to grocery stores hasn’t been as drastic.

“It’s not as straightforward as restaurants and cafeterias in Maine,” Sabina said. “We’re really fortunate that so many of the grocery stores do already purchase food from local farms. But this is also a really quiet time of year for farms so while stores may not be purchasing as much right now, we expect they’d ramp that up, purchasing as production on farms increases with the seasons.” 

And the disruptions from coronavirus came at a time that is already difficult for farms.

“This is always a tricky time of year for cash flow and the pandemic has increased that as they’ve had to make these adjustments,” Alexander said. “This is a time of year where cash is pretty tight for farms generally because they have to spend money on seeds and other resources to get it started for the season.”

Another effort to help farmers during the pandemic has come from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension which recently launched an online directory of farms around the state in an effort to increase the direct to consumer sales.

The extension, in collaboration with MOFGA, also created a program to enlist the help of temporary workers for dairy farmers in the event the farmers contracted the coronavirus.

Applications for emergency grants are due on April 27, and grants are expected to be distributed by the week of May 4.

Farms looking to apply can visit mainefarmlandtrust.org or mofga.org.

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