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Tampa Bay small farmers miss out on federal coronavirus assistance

Many say community support is keeping business alive during the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding food producers across the country but small farms in the Tampa Bay area say community support has kept them afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program on April 17, with $16 billion set aside for direct support to ranchers and farmers where prices and market supply chains were impacted by the pandemic.

Rowland Milam, owner of Life Farms in Clearwater, estimated that his revenue dropped close to 75 percent and that he had to throw out nearly half his lettuce crop after restaurants and farmers’ markets closed.

While Milam is applying for other USDA grants, he was unaware of any coronavirus funding that was appropriate for his farm. “I wish there was,” said Milam. “We could definitely use it. We’ve been hit very hard.”

Milam and his wife have been able to keep all of their team members employed during the pandemic but had to use some of their personal savings to keep the business afloat. “We’re committed to the farm and we’re committed to our team here. We all look at each other as family,” said Milam.

Two other local farms, Meacham Urban Farm and TrailBale Farm, did not apply for any of the program’s funding.

Travis Malloy checks on the fencing of holes or gaps from predators attacking the lambs at Trailbale Farm in Temple Terrace in 2019. (Times | 2019) [ Tampa Bay Times ]

With a growing season of October to June, Kristin Beauvois, one of three owners for Meacham Urban Farm in Tampa, said her team had been too busy to research the program.

“In the middle of season, as all this is happening, we’re pretty much trying to keep the business afloat and get as much of the word out there so we can continue to sell produce,” said Beauvois.

Sanaz Arjomand, federal policy director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, said the USDA has made efforts to reach farmers, but it’s difficult figuring out who is getting the news.

“It’s hard to tell whether farmers are not aware of it and that’s why they’re not applying or if there are just a lot of structural barriers in programs that make those numbers low,” said Arjomand.

The National Young Farmers Coalition is a network of nearly 200,000 farmers, ranchers and agriculture supporters. The organization is advocating for direct payments to farmers in the next COVID-19 package from Congress.

Arjomand explained that the current system requires farms to list their losses from each crop, which is more difficult for small farms that sell a diverse range of produce.

“Those local and regional growers haven’t really been able to get into the program as it stands,” said Arjomand. “One of the main things we’ve been talking about is looking at their business as a whole as opposed to trying to make them parse things out crop by crop.”

Little Pond Farms in Bushnell received funding through the program for crops they didn’t harvest as a result of the pandemic. Co-owner Cole Turner explained that the program is better suited for large scale commodity crop producers than for small, local producers.

“I don’t think the program was designed to support the diversity of crops that small producers are growing,” said Turner, “The price points that they were paying out I don’t even think scratched the surface of the losses that small, organically certified farms have had.”

There is some federal funding from the USDA program supporting large Florida producers. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program also included $3 billion in funding for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which purchases food from producers to redistribute to those in need.

Eight Florida agriculture businesses are part of the program and their combined contracts are valued at over $144 million. The largest contract is for GA Foodservice of Pinellas County, Inc. for over $73 million.

Related: As grocery store shelves empty, Tampa Bay farmers and markets find new customers online

But for small farmers, investing in new ways to connect with local consumers has been key to surviving the pandemic.

Sales at TrailBale Farm in Temple Terrace have gone up “substantially,” according to co-owner Travis Malloy. “Business from local families has picked up incredibly.”

All of the farms have incorporated online sales and different methods of delivery.

“We put together, with the help of the city of St. Pete, the ability to deliver pre-ordered boxes,” said Milam. “And so that helped us start the online shop, which has continued to grow.”

“I think that people appreciated the low touch, drive-thru format in order to continue getting fresh fruit and vegetables,” said Turner of Little Pond Farm’s steady vegetable sales.

The owners also say they’ve gained new customers who were working to avoid grocery stores during the pandemic.

“As a whole, I don’t think it was detrimental to us. It actually ended up being an instigator for people’s curiosity about what their options were for food,” said Beauvois. “It’s just working on convenience to bring more people to the farms and there are less excuses of why they can’t shop local.”

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