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CISA offers blizzard repair loans to Valley farmers

The group Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture is re-opening the fund after hearing from farmers about greenhouse collapses during the storm.

“We saw during Irene that a small zero-interest loan can really get a small farm turned around,” said Sam Stegeman, program coordinator at CISA.

The fund was launched in October 2011 by CISA in partnership with Whole Foods Market and Equity Trust to help farmers meet needs in the aftermath of natural disasters.

It was fueled by a $50,000 matching grant from an anonymous donor. The fund has since received gifts from businesses and individuals ranging from $5 to $20,000.

In 2012, the fund distributed $93,000 in zero-interest loans ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 to 11 farms. Stegeman said all of the farms are paying the loans back on time or ahead of schedule. They can be paid over the length of one to three years.

“Our program plays an important but small role. We are able to respond quickly and take on a higher risk,” said Phillip Korman, executive director of CISA.

Korman said he has heard from eight to 10 farms that suffered from collapsed greenhouses in the blizzard, due both to winds and the weight of snow. He said they varied from old to new structures, with and without crops inside.

Korman said that as of early this week, two farms have applied for the loan that has a March 31 deadline. He expects the fund will be able to cover the need, if five to 10 farms apply.

Stegeman explained that CISA is using money already present. The fund, however, is always open to donations.

“As long as the community is inspired to give, we will have the capability to give,” said Korman.

“As we see more severe weather events happening it seems important that we have this grow and develop over time,” Stegeman said.

In this way, the fund can be available when farmers need it, like the recent blizzard.

Caroline Pam, owner of Kitchen Garden Farm, said her farm suffered greenhouse damage, but that she will not need to apply for a loan for repairs. Nonetheless, she said she was glad CISA’s fund exists for farmers.

“I think it is a great option that is available,” she said. “It allows you to respond quickly, and salvage your crops.”

For farms with different needs, or needs that cannot be met by the CISA Emergency Farm Fund, other loan sources exist.

Randy Kleiner, farm loan chief for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said his office has been gathering data on the blizzard and will be submitting a request this week for the Farm Service Agency to administer an emergency designation in Massachusetts.

Kleiner said his office can help farmers who cannot obtain conventional financing, adding, “If we weren’t here, it would be chaotic.”

Kleiner said farms would be able to apply for loans up to $500,000 at a fixed interest rate of 2.25 percent.

He confirmed that recent damages are largely to greenhouses.

An application for the CISA Emergency Farm Fund can be found on its website.

Farms can apply if they suffered damage from the storm, reside and operate in Franklin, Hampshire, or Hampden counties and had gross annual sales for 2012 of $20,000 or more.

The group says loan decisions are made within 15 business days of applying by a team of people from a variety of agricultural backgrounds.

For more information about the loan programs available from the USDA, visit www.fsa.usda.gov.

CISA works to build connections between farmers and the community. It has provided hundreds of farms with technical and marketing assistance over the past 20 years.

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