Editorial: Farm aid finally arrives from state, federal sources

Gov. Maura Healey speaks to reporters in Easthampton on Thursday, July 19, 2023. The Healey administration announced the creation of a private relief fund for farmers dealing with the aftermath of floods and rains in Western Massachusetts. (Chris Van Buskirk/Boston Herald)

Federal agriculture officials on Tuesday declared a natural disaster in seven Massachusetts counties, where farmers struggle to recover from last month’s heavy rains and floods that caused at least $15 million in damages across 110 farms and 2,700 acres.

However, that declaration from the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t open up the federal spigot for direct financial aid, but rather offers low-interest loans and the option to refinance existing debt.

Affected farmers can also tap into the Emergency Conservation Program, a federal cost-sharing initiative for debris and clean-up costs related to natural disasters.

A disaster was declared in Berkshire, Bristol, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Norfolk, and Worcester counties. Bordering counties, including Dukes, Middlesex, Plymouth, and Suffolk, can also apply for loans.

We doubt that the offer to borrow their way out of this financial calamity constitutes the kind assistance beleaguered farmers sought from the federal government.

Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Commissioner Ashely Randle previously told the Boston Herald that federal loans may add additional red ink to farmers’ bottom line at a time when they can’t generate additional income, given that the severe weather occurred just before harvesting season.

Farmers in Massachusetts “should know that their government has their backs,” said Gov. Maura Healey, in reaction to the federal disaster announcement.

Heading into this week, we’re not sure those reeling farmers believed state government had put a priority on lending them a helping hand.

Top Democrats in the House had previously showed no interest in deploying state dollars toward supporting that portion of the state’s stricken agricultural sector.

Deerfield Rep. Natalie Blais, who represents 17 Franklin County towns and part of Greenfield, proposed launching an “Agricultural Disaster Relief Fund” with $20 million from the state as part of a supplemental budget the House approved last week, but top Democrats decided against including the idea in a substantial amendment following closed-doors negotiations.

Even Gov. Healey, who traveled to central and western Massachusetts several times to survey the flood damage, initially called only for private donations, without indicating any plans to pursue state aid.

Healey announced last month the creation of the “Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund,” a fundraiser administered by United Way of Central Massachusetts that she said was the best way to provide direct relief to farmers.

Healey did not detail any plans to donate state dollars toward the fund, other than an initial $10,000 sum from Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office. In a statement provided by Healey’s office, Campbell said that money is “all from settlements reached by this office” without offering specifics.

At a July 20 event in Easthampton, Healey said she was “not holding” her breath for federal relief.

“If people think that there’s going to be a whole bunch of money coming from the federal government this way, I’m not holding my breath, none of us are, and I want to be really clear about that,” Healey said.

Given what the federal government offered, her skepticism was justified.

But better late than never, the Legislature included $20 million in farm relief as part of a supplemental spending bill passed Monday that the governor signed into law Tuesday.

In addition to the $20 million for central and western Massachusetts farmers, the $200 million bill extends authorization for racing and simulcasting, which had been set to expire, until Dec. 15, 2025.

It also steers $180 million toward fiscally strained hospitals.

Each of the three provisions existed in some form in much larger fiscal year 2023 supplemental budgets — totaling $693 million in the House and $513 million in the Senate — that the branches approved in recent weeks.

Farm aid apparently had emerged as a priority for Senate President Karen Spilka and her leadership team, who went to Hatfield to announce their plans for the funding before inserting it into their version of the broader supplemental budget.

Language in the bill tailors that farm funding “to support mitigation costs associated with natural disasters that occurred in 2023.”

That includes “mitigation costs” for impacted farms.

The Executive Office of Administration and Finance and the Department of Agricultural Resources are tasked with distributing the funds.

Let’s hope this $20 million state rescue package becomes quickly available to those farmers trying to extricate themselves from this catastrophic natural disaster.

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