EASTHAMPTON — Governor Maura Healey and the United Way of Central Massachusetts on Thursday announced a new fund-raising effort for farms in Western Massachusetts that were devastated by flooding from recent torrential rains.
The Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund, a partnership between philanthropic organizations and private foundations, so far has $100,000 committed to it by private philanthropists, Healey said at a press conference at Mountain View Farm in Easthampton.
Private foundations that have announced their support include the Eastern States Exposition, Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.
Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell has also committed an initial $10,000 from settlements reached by her office.
“As the lieutenant governor and I have visited farms across the state, we’ve been deeply moved by the devastating impacts we’ve seen and heartbreaking stories we’ve heard. We’re grateful to our philanthropic and private partners for quickly answering the call to action and creating this fund to deliver relief directly to farmers,” Healey said. “We knew we had to do something and so that’s what today is about, wanting to find a way to come together to provide direct aid to our farmers.”
The governor shared a website where people could donate to the effort. Funds will be distributed “rapidly” by the United Way through a deliberate selection process to ensure farmers can begin recovery as soon as possible, according to a Healey administration press release.
A regional advisory committee is established to keep efforts concentrated locally, said Tim Garvin, president and CEO at United Way of Central Massachusetts.
“If and when it happens in other regions, we will do the same thing in Central Mass., on the Shore, down on the South Coast, so that we are staying local and helping where the need is greatest,” Garvin said at the press conference.
Money will be distributed to farmers as grants, not loans.
Three to nine inches of rain fell on the Pioneer Valley region last week, causing the Connecticut River to swell reportedly up to 20 inches in some places, flooding over farmland and damaging at least 2,000 acres of crops such as potatoes, corn, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and tobacco. Losses so far are estimated at $15 million and rising.
Western Massachusetts farms have felt the pain that can come with rain before. In 2011, Hurricane Irene brought 10 inches in some areas, and a 1984 flood brought 8 to 9 inches.
But this year, the storms came as farmers were only a week or two away from harvesting, now losing crops that they had poured time, money, and labor into all season. Flooding this month could prevent farmers from a second harvest this season — and has the potential to affect next season’s crops.
“To the farmers, I want you to know we’re in it for the long haul. So, this is more than about just relief,” Healey said. “It’s about recovery. It’s about resilience. It’s about sustainability.”
Earlier on Thursday, Healey also announced $26.3 million in grants to improve food security and resilience, which she said in a press release would help mitigate the impact that the farms flooding had on food security in Massachusetts.
Healey’s administration will support 165 programs through the Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program, which provides grants for capital infrastructure investments that increase access to locally produced food for families and individuals facing food insecurity. For the first time, the state is prioritizing projects that support organizations impacted by drought or extreme weather events, according to the press release.
“In speaking to farmers over the past week, it’s clear that they need support now more than ever after being hit hard by extreme weather events from flooding to drought to late frost,” Healey said. “Our farmers are the backbone of Massachusetts’ food infrastructure, and it’s critical that we continue to make short and long-term investments through grants like these to help strengthen resiliency and enhance mitigation efforts.”
Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey and Representatives Jim McGovern and Richard Neal on Thursday urged the US Department of Agriculture to provide emergency assistance for local relief efforts, designate the affected counties as disaster areas, and expand outreach efforts.
“In light of the profound harm to the farming community, we request that you use the full authority of the Department of Agriculture to assist the farmers and community members who have been impacted by this disaster in Western Massachusetts,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack and Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux.
They wrote that a disaster area designation would allow farmers in affected communities “to quickly access funds, including FSA’s Emergency Loan program and other FSA assistance programs, for flood clean up and to address damage from erosion.”
The four also called on staff from the federal agencies to engage directly with affected farmers and communities and ensure there is a public website and community forums to inform them of the help available.
Warren, Markey, McGovern, and Neal asked for USDA officials to provide them with a briefing on all three requests by July 28.
Healey said at the press conference that she is in support of the lawmakers’ letter asking for federal funding and has been in communication with the federal delegation.
If the USDA declares an emergency declaration, federal loans would be available to impacted farmers. But not everyone wants those.
Bernie Smiarowksi, a potato farmer in Western Massachusetts, told the Globe he takes out loans at the start of each season to pay for seed, equipment, and labor, and that the return at harvest is used to pay them back.
Smiarowski said the farmers need grants. Otherwise, he said “it’s loans to pay back loans. That just puts us further in debt.”