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Federal assistance for farmers is on the way, but it might not help much locally

A coalition of New York State Assembly members in the minority are calling on their colleagues in the legislature to provide relief to farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, legislative leaders and Richard Ball, the commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, note that the spread of the virus has negatively impacted the over 33,000 farms, forcing upstate dairy farmers to dump their products.

The Assembly members, which include Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), outlined several recommendations to help the agricultural industry recover from the crisis. Their plan calls for suspending DMV registration requirements for farm vehicles and the 60-hour overtime threshold and 24-hour required rest period for farm employees that took effect in January for at least a year.

It also recommends deeming “green nurseries” as essential businesses so they can reopen and follow social distancing guidelines and providing food banks with vouchers so they can purchase locally made products.

“The agriculture industry is crucial to New York’s economy,” Mr. Palumbo said in a statement. “It is paramount they receive the support they deserve during this troubling time. I have joined the Assembly Minority Conference in putting forth a plan that we believe will help get our farmers through the COVID-19 pandemic, and I encourage the governor and legislative leaders to act now in support of our farmers, before it’s too late.”

The plea for help came just before federal officials announced a $19 billion package to help farmers navigate through the coronavirus crisis. The federal plan, a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, includes $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, as well as $3 billion that will connect food banks to farmers.

The measure was applauded by the state Farm Bureau, which earlier this month wrote a letter to the USDA asking for federal assistance and a donation program that would cut down on wasted products throughout the pandemic.

“No farmer wants to see food go to waste but is sometimes left with no other choice considering the major challenges confronting the food distribution chain,” New York Farm Bureau president David Fisher said in a statement. “Like most small businesses, New York’s farm families are trying to cope the best they can while they continue to make sure food production doesn’t stop. The USDA announcement is an investment into food security for this country.”

Long Island Farm Bureau administrative Director Rob Carpenter said in an interview Monday that the USDA bill will help get food into the hands of people in need. “That’s a huge boon to helping farmers and food banks,” he said.

“There’s no question that agriculture as a whole both across the United States, in New York and here on Long Island, is hurting,” Mr. Carpenter said.

But while the aid package is certainly welcomed, he’s concerned that Long Island farms could be left out.

The funding is broken down by industry, with $9.6 billion set aside for the livestock industry, $5.1 billion for cattle, $2.9 billion for dairy, $1.6 billion for hogs, $3.9 billion for row crop producers, $2.1 billion for specialty crops producers and $500 million for others crops.

The payments will be based on price losses documented between January 1 and April 15, 2020, as well as expected losses over the next two quarters. Payments will be capped at $250,000 per individual or entity, according to officials.

The majority of crops grown on Long Island, Mr. Carpenter said, are seen as “specialty crops” — vineyards, horticulture operations and aquaculture, for example — and are thus entitled to less funding overall.

“Because we grow so many specialty crops we’ll be competing against all of the other segments throughout the U.S. I don’t know if it’ll be enough to carry us through,” he said.

Some farmers were left out of the first round of Paycheck Protection Program funding and are not eligible for many disaster loans that other small businesses are.

“Farms are small businesses and should qualify,” Mr. Carpenter said.

Kimberly Krupski of the USDA Farm Service Agency said when the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program is released, the local office will be experiencing higher than normal workload. Interested producers are encouraged to reach out to update records to ensure when the program enrollment opens, applications can begin without delay. For more information, email [email protected] and [email protected] or call 631-727-5666, ext. 2.