Judy Poulin, 70, went to the farmers’ market every Thursday last summer to get the good stuff.
The tomatoes, she roasted in the oven of her Fairfield home before freezing them in anticipation of soups later in the year.
She pickled the beets. The cucumbers and string beans, she preferred to eat fresh. Nothing was wasted.
But Poulin let out a sad sigh at the thought that there might no longer be pickled beets, greens or fresh produce for her at the market this year.
“That’s going to be tough,” she said. “That’s too bad.”
Poulin is one of about 17,750 Maine seniors who benefited last year from the Maine Senior FarmShare program, which gives $50 farmers’ market food vouchers to seniors.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet released funding for the program this year, raising concerns about whether the program will be rolled out in time to help farmers and seniors take advantage of the upcoming growing season.
The reason behind the delay was the slow passage of a trillion-dollar federal farm bill, which was approved and signed into law by President Obama on Feb. 7, but only after much political wrangling. Federal and state officials say they hope the USDA will act quickly enough to avoid any significant disruptions to the program.
Fifty dollars may not sound like a lot, but for Poulin, who lives on about $9,000 a year from Social Security benefits, the amount really helps. She has signed up for FarmShare each year for the last four years.
“Food’s expensive,” she said, “and it’s not getting any cheaper.”
Peter Chandler, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said the congressman urged the USDA to move forward quickly “so that states like Maine can begin approving those applications in order to assure that the program is able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables as soon as the harvest happens.”
Chandler said the USDA released the funding for the Farm to School program on Feb. 19, which he said is a sign the agency is working through components of the Farm Bill quickly. “No guarantees, but we’ve weighed in with the USDA,” he said.
Spectrum Generations, central Maine’s Area Agency on Aging, which publicizes FarmShare’s offerings to the seniors it serves, raised alarms last week after saying the program apparently had been suspended for 2014.
“It is possible that Congress may re-authorize the program, but the USDA has no way of knowing if or when this will happen,” Gloria Rhode, who helps to coordinate the program for Spectrum, said in a statement.
Until the USDA releases funding, Maine and other states can’t allow their farmers to apply for the program. Last year, applications went out in January and were due back from farmers on Feb. 15.
John Bott, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said he expects the delay will not derail the program for the year.
But one reason the state can’t move forward is that no one knows how much Maine will receive this year. Last year, it was about $890,000, off from a peak funding level of just over $1 million the previous year.
The USDA also will require the state to submit a five-year plan to administer the program, but Bott said he wasn’t sure how much work would be involved. “We’re in a holding pattern, in terms of getting the specific information from the USDA,” he said.
Despite those hurdles, Bott said he hoped the program would be able to catch up on last year’s timetable, with applications going out to farmers within the next week or two and farmers being approved shortly thereafter.
Meantime, seniors and farmers alike are anxiously awaiting word on the program’s status and funding levels.
One of the program’s strengths is that it has been able to help those two groups at once, according to U.S. Rep Chellie Pingree, who released a statement about the delay Friday. “It gives Maine seniors a chance to access fresh, local food and at the same time puts more money into local farms,” she said.
Senior FarmShare was launched as a pilot program in 31 states in 2001. In its first year, the program pumped $769,500 into the local farming economy, almost all of it going to small farmers.
In 2006, a study by the University of Southern Maine found that 40 percent of participating farmers reported that because the program gave them reliable sales, they were able to plant more crops.
The problem with Senior FarmShare has always been its success. The prospect of free, healthy, locally grown food has continuously attracted more seniors than the program can serve.
When it was first created, seniors received $100 each through the program but as demand outstripped funding, the voucher amounts were cut in half, to $50 in 2009. With more vouchers available, the number of participants soared, to 19,000 seniors and 130 farmers in 2012, when the program’s funding levels topped $1 million. Last year, the program distributed about $890,000 to 118 farmers.
Every year, farmers across the state apply to a central state office to participate in the program. Once a farmer’s application has been approved for a certain number of shares, the farmer signs up seniors to participate.
Each income-eligible person aged 60 or older gets one share, a $50 credit with that farmer. The credit, given one time for the year, can be used to purchase any of the food that farmer sells.
Delays are particularly important in farming, where timing is everything, Pingree said.
“A delay is not ideal because this is the time of year when farmers are planning for the upcoming season,” she said, “and it would be helpful to know how many people are going to sign up for farm shares.”
Poulin said she relies on FarmShare to keep locally grown food on the table.
“I have a little bit of a garden, but it’s just not enough,” she said.
Like many seniors, Poulin has to make tough choices between buying healthy food and buying cheap food.
“Pasta will go a lot further than a bag of lettuce,” she said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: