Federal funding programs created to help businesses weather the coronavirus pandemic have fallen short of meeting the needs of Maine’s farmers, Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal told lawmakers Thursday.

Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, told lawmakers Thursday that Maine’s share of funding from the federal CARES Act has been insufficient for farmers. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Speaking before the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, Beal said the state’s share of funding streams from the $2 trillion CARES Act that passed in April – including the Paycheck Protection Program and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program – has been insufficient.

“(These programs) are helping a lot of people but unfortunately only 1.2 percent of all PPP funding in the country has gone to agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors, so that’s not very much,” she said. She did not provide Maine-specific data.

Loss of revenue is the biggest concern among Maine’s more than 13,000 farmers, whose industry has been forced to adapt like every other. Beal said there have been positives, too – more consumers are buying meat and produce directly from producers, for instance – but even as the state’s economy starts to open up, other fears exist.

Among them are how to safely accommodate the thousands of migrant workers who are expected to arrive in Maine this summer to help with harvesting. Since migrant workers are categorized as essential, they are not subject to any quarantine restrictions, but Beal said the hope is that they will be tested before they come. The state also is working with growers to implement testing on farms and fields and to provide more safeguards for the many who stay in housing on site.

Beal said there also is concern about having enough labor to harvest, an issue that existed before the pandemic.

Lawmakers mostly listened as the commissioner provided an overview of her department’s response. There were a handful of questions but no committee member pressed Beal or offered criticism.

Thursday’s meeting comes as pressure mounts on the Legislature to resume its duties. Republicans, in particular, want to ensure that the Legislature can serve as a check on Gov. Janet Mills, the Democrat who has issued a number of executive orders since mid-March.

Beal said one source of federal funding, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Programs, has provided direct payments totaling $3.2 million to Maine farmers to cover losses for the first quarter of 2020, which ended March 30. The biggest share went to dairy farmers.

“Much of the Maine agriculture community will not benefit from this funding because most Maine farmers did not have crops in the ground, or product in storage to sell,” she said.

Another program, the Farmers to Families Food Box Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will not benefit Maine, Beal said. Contracts were awarded in May and no Maine-based distributors were picked.

“This means that most Maine producers and those who are food insecure won’t benefit from the $3 billion allocated for the Food Box Program as it stands now,” she said.

The agriculture industry is still waiting to see how much it will receive from Maine’s share of $1.25 billion in CARES Act state block grant funding. Maine, like every state, is still assessing the impact on various industries before distributing funds, but so far, Beal said, $80 million in agriculture-related requests have come in for things like income loss by farmers, increased costs to farmers because of COVID-19; and opportunities to enhance existing programs that purchase from Maine farmers.

In addition to Beal, lawmakers also heard Thursday from Hannah Carter, dean of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, which supports the state’s agriculture industry through education and promotion. She said there is no doubt that many farmers and producers have faced serious disruption but also said there have been silver linings – the biggest of which are an increase in direct sales from producers to customers, especially since less product has been going to restaurants.

Early on in the pandemic, Carter said the Cooperative Extension reached out to a cheesemaker from Waldoboro, Allison Lakin, who had created an online service where farmers and producers could list what products they had available.

The extension then took over management and expansion of the Maine Farms and Seafood Directory as of last week, the page had been viewed more than 1 million times in just over two months.

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