Columnists Philip Korman and Winton Pitcoff: Wise allocation of ARPA funds will include support for local farms

  • Peppers FILE PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

Published: 10/20/2021 4:22:50 PM

Right now, Massachusetts legislators are making decisions about how they can best apportion resources from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). These funds are designed to support businesses that have been especially impacted by COVID, but they also provide an opportunity to build on strengths in our local economy and to develop resilience to future challenges. We call on our legislators to invest ARPA funds in critical local agricultural infrastructure needs.

The last 18 months have been universally challenging, and Massachusetts farms are no exception. The pandemic disrupted markets, cut off existing revenue streams, and demanded substantial new investments as farmers rode out endless market and regulatory shifts. A drought in 2020 and a disastrously rainy season in 2021 compounded these difficulties. Through all of this, Massachusetts farmers have continued to feed our communities.

Massachusetts farms are facing two enormous challenges, which they can’t survive without support: rapidly changing markets and a rapidly changing climate. Meanwhile, our need for thriving local farms is only growing as those twin threats jeopardize our region’s food security, our environment and natural resources, and our local economy. Wise allocation of ARPA funding is an opportunity to build a local food system that will serve us into the future, which is why the following areas deserve significant investment.

Flexible funding for infrastructure

The state’s Food Security Infrastructure Grant (FSIG) began to address farmers’ needs for capital expenses in 2020, including storage buildings, refrigeration, delivery vehicles, greenhouses, irrigation, livestock supplies, and many other infrastructure needs. FSIG was able to fund only 11% of the requests for funding, but its flexibility and appropriate targeting has been cited positively by farmers.

We advocate for $30 million per year for the next three years dedicated to FSIG, with resources allocated to support farmers through the application process. In addition, we recommend committing an additional $10 million over three years to the state’s Agricultural Environmental Enhancement Program and Agricultural Climate Resilience Enhancement programs, which target funds to projects that help farmers address climate change-related challenges.

Conversion of publicly-held vacant land for farming

Land costs are higher in Massachusetts than nearly anywhere else in the nation. At the same time, municipalities throughout the commonwealth hold significant amounts of vacant land suitable for agriculture. The state should dedicate ARPA funds to a grant and loan program that supports farmers in purchasing these parcels, remediating any existing environmental concerns, and installing needed infrastructure to begin farming.

We recommend allocating $50 million in grants to farmers and incentives to municipalities, and $50 million in a revolving loan fund to provide zero-interest loans to farmers seeking to purchase and steward this land. Funds should prioritize assistance for BIPOC and immigrant farmers, and incentivize exiting farmers to sell farmland to new farmers.

Labor and education

Farmers and farm workers need new skills in order to adapt to climate change. This means learning how to cultivate crops using tools like irrigation and controlled-climate greenhouses, how to contend with new invasive pests, and how to best protect soil and water resources.

We recommend $2 million in funding per year for the next three years for new educators and technical assistance providers at UMass Extension focused on climate change adaptation and related topics, and $5 million in infrastructure grants to support agriculture programs at vocational high schools.

Housing

The lack of affordable housing on and near farms presents an often insurmountable burden for both farmers and farm workers. Especially when farms are located in communities without adequate public transportation, on-site or nearby housing is critical to keeping them sustainable. We recommend $10 million in grants and a $10 million revolving loan fund to support housing for low-income farmers and low-income farm workers, and we urge that any affordable housing supported with ARPA funds must account for the needs of farmers and farm workers.

These resources must be made available not only to established farmers, but also to beginning and aspiring farmers, including projects and farms that are on small parcels of land. And all of these expenditures must account for the racially inequitable policies that have excluded BIPOC and immigrant farmers from accessing the resources they need to farm. Outreach and grantmaking should target underserved communities, and all programs should commit to full demographic transparency.

ARPA funding presents an opportunity to come back from the challenges of COVID stronger and better prepared for the next crisis. We call on our legislators to invest in a more resilient local food system by meeting the needs of Massachusetts farmers, and you can find your legislators at https://bit.ly/3C7KIQR to voice your support for these important investments.

Philip Korman, CISA, and Winton Pitcoff, Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, wwrote this on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition for Local Food and Farms and NOFA/Mass.


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