Efforts To Help Farms In The NEK

AROUND THE NEK - Many farmers in the NEK were struggling to keep buisness afloat during the Pandemic, the Vemont Legislature knew this was a problem and needed a fast fix to help our farmers in the state of Vermont to keep product flowing. 

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Foods and Market was given thirty four million hundred thousand dollars in grants enacted by the CARES act to fund the agency's new Covid-19 Agriculture Assistance program. The program was approved on July 2nd of this year, the purpose of these grants is to support Vermont Farmers with their financial hardships brought on by the pandemic.

"Because these are federal Corona virus relief funds, they have to support businesses in response to economic hardship that they received for their business as a result of the pandemic. So the way that we built the applications where we looked at incurred costs or losses that each of these businesses and organizations received as a result of the pandemic, and if they could document those losses and additional costs," says Abbey Willard, the Agricultural Development Division Director.

The program offers two different dairy applications, a dairy producer, and a dairy processor along with the Agriculture and Working Lands application, as well as the Agriculture Fair application. After the program had launched their phase one set of applications, they closed the applications on October 1st. The legislature wanted to make some eligibility changes to the original applications during the break period, and changed the application deadline to November 15th.

"Those applications are still currently closed while we are reviewing the applications we received as the 10/1 deadline, with the intent of re-open the application within a few weeks. Then that application will be live until November 15th," Willard goes on to say.

Much of the appropriations concerning the funding was broken up by the Legislature. 25 million dollars was given to Dairy Assistance, 5 million dollars to Agricultural Producer and Processor Assistance, 500 thousand for Agricultural Fairs, and two million five hundred thousand to be appropriated to the Working Lands Enterprise Fund. More information on funding can be found on the Vermont Agency of Agriculture's website.

The idea of the funding was that the Agency did not need to know exactly what the businesses were spending the money on, but instead just to reimburse or support a business in getting some assistance from the financial losses brought on by the pandemic.

For instance if a business lost all market, or developed new packaging because of a new market they took on, or if they had to hire more staff, all of those costs would be eligible to claim in the applications.

"We are seeing applications where businesses are claiming, you know 400 fifty thousand dollars in losses because this could be larger dairy businesses or larger diversified operations. To as low as, you know, some businesses can only receive up to two thousand or twenty five hundred dollars in a reimbursement grant," Willard says.

Since the various applications have been sent and now have been closed, with the hope to re-open again there were a variety of eligibility and accessibility challenges for some businesses when applying. All applications are online, so the Agency did not accept anything in paper. Each application requires three primary sections. One; registering and confirming that the business identity was valid.

"There are some challenges for certain businesses about what their W9 information was that matched with their business ID," Willard goes on to say.

Two; a business needed to include income losses, so revenue tables, profit and loss statements, comparing 2019 sales to 2020 sales, or 2019 taxes to demonstrate what a business typically makes. Three; what other economic harm was caused by the pandemic? What additional expenses did a business have, or a letter from a buyer that said they were no longer buying a product.

Each business has the burden of proof that they lost revenue. The next session of phase two for applications will be a little different when it comes to distributing funds. Phase one applications were reviewed as they were received, it was a guarantee that each business would get what they were eligible for. For phase two of applications, applications will be first come first serve for any application due to the amount of money they have left in funding.

"But the goal is we want businesses to get the resources and the support they need and we are there to help them with support from other business advisors in the state to help submit a successful and complete application," Willard explains.

The applications submitted by the deadline on October 1st are still being reviewed. 611 dairy applications were submitted, and 229 Agriculture and Lands applications that were submitted to the Agency. Some businesses that have applied for the funds consist of Hidden Acres Farm, Kempton Farms Inc, Lucky Hill Farm LLP, and Hill View Farms LLC. 

The system has been working quite well, there was some technical difficulty with some people filling out the applications but the agency always provides technical assistance to applicants if needed. 

"So there were individuals that didn't use a computer or didn't know how to take a document that was in their email and upload it as an attachment to an online application. There has been a variety of ways that we have assisted those businesses. One has been they can call the Agency of Agriculture, there is a help line that includes phone number and email for applicants to share if they are having technical difficulties," Willard goes on to say.  

The agency is now working launching some other programs such as the Farmers Market Grant Program for markets that have less than 10 thousand dollars in annual gross income, and were not eligible for that Agriculture and Lands Working applications. As well as additional Corona virus relief funds to support farm to school programming, and school efforts to have outdoor classrooms and focus on meal preparation for students.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture hopes that people will still apply if anyone needs financial assistance, there is no shame in asking for help during the pandemic.