Currently, Massachusetts lawmakers are making decisions about how best to allocate the resources of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). These funds are designed to support businesses that have been particularly affected by COVID, but they also provide an opportunity to leverage the strengths of our local economy and build resilience to future challenges. We call on our legislators to invest ARPA funds in critical local agricultural infrastructure needs.
The past 18 months have been universally tough, and Massachusetts Farms are no exception. The pandemic disrupted markets, cut off existing sources of income, and demanded substantial new investments as farmers weathered endless market and regulatory changes. A drought in 2020 and a disastrous rainy season in 2021 aggravated these difficulties. Through it all, Massachusetts farmers have continued to feed our communities.
Massachusetts farms face two enormous challenges, which they cannot survive without support: rapidly changing markets and a rapidly changing climate. Meanwhile, our need for thriving local farms only grows, as both of these threats threaten our region’s food security, our environment and natural resources, as well as our local economy. The judicious allocation of ARPA funding is an opportunity to build a local food system that will serve us in the future, which is why the following areas deserve significant investment.
The State Food Security Infrastructure Grant (FSIG) began to meet farmers’ capital expenditure needs in 2020, including storage buildings, refrigeration, delivery vehicles, greenhouses, irrigation, livestock supply and many other infrastructure needs. The FSIG was only able to fund 11% of funding requests, but its flexibility and appropriate targeting were cited positively by farmers.
We advocate $ 30 million per year for the next three years dedicated to the FSIG, with resources allocated to support farmers throughout the application process. In addition, we recommend that an additional $ 10 million over three years be allocated to the State’s Agricultural Environment Improvement Program and Agricultural Climate Resilience Improvement Programs, which target funds for projects. that help farmers meet the challenges of climate change.
Land costs are higher in Massachusetts than almost anywhere else in the country. At the same time, Commonwealth municipalities hold significant amounts of vacant land suitable for agriculture. The state should devote ARPA funds to a grant and loan program that helps farmers buy these plots, address existing environmental problems, and install the necessary infrastructure to start farming.
We recommend allocating $ 50 million in grants to farmers and incentives to municipalities, and $ 50 million in a revolving loan fund to provide zero-interest loans to farmers looking to purchase and manage this land. The funds should prioritize aid to BIPOC and immigrant farmers, and encourage outgoing farmers to sell farmland to new farmers.
Farmers and farm workers need new skills to adapt to climate change. This means learning how to grow crops using tools like irrigation and climate-controlled greenhouses, how to control new invasive pests, and how to best protect soil and water resources.
We recommend funding of $ 2 million per year over the next three years for new educators and technical assistance providers at UMass Extension focused on climate change adaptation and related topics, and $ 5 million in grants infrastructure to support agricultural programs in vocational high schools.
The lack of affordable housing on and near farms places an often insurmountable burden on farmers and farm workers. Especially when farms are located in communities without adequate public transport, housing on site or nearby is essential to ensure their sustainability. We recommend $ 10 million in grants and a $ 10 million revolving loan fund to support housing for low-income farmers and farm workers, and we urge any affordable housing funded by ARPA funds to take take into account the needs of farmers and agricultural workers.
These resources must be made available not only to established farmers, but also to new and aspiring farmers, including projects and farms that are on small plots of land. And all of that spending must take into account the racially inequitable policies that have excluded BIPOC and immigrant farmers from accessing the resources they need to farm. Awareness-raising and grant-making should target underserved communities, and all programs should commit to full demographic transparency.
ARPA funding presents an opportunity to come back from the challenges of COVID stronger and better prepared for the next crisis. We’re calling on our lawmakers to invest in a more resilient local food system by meeting the needs of Massachusetts farmers, and you can find your lawmakers at https://bit.ly/3C7KIQR to express your support for these important investments.
Philip Korman, CISA, and Winton Pitcoff, Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, wrote this on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition for Local Food and Farms and NOFA / Mass.