Ag commissioner defends farm aid criteria

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Mar. 15—CONCORD — Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper defended his decision to limit grants under an $8 million crop relief program to farmers who had net losses because of floods and severe frosts over the past year.

Senate Majority Whip Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, said the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approval of the program led still-profitable farmers to believe they too would get help if the storms led to declining revenues.

"The farmers are in an uproar over this, and they are under a different understanding," Birdsell said during a meeting Friday.

The Executive Council and fiscal panel both endorsed Jasper's request last month to direct unspent federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to assist farmers who faced several storm events in 2023 that devastated some crops, including apples, fruits and vegetables.

To apply, farmers had to sustain at least 30% crop loss during one of three storms, have at least $30,000 in annual sales and declining revenue compared to 2022.

Once grants were approved and the Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food began accepting applicants March 1, farmers learned the assistance would be reserved to cover up to 50% of net losses for that year.

Birdsell said one unidentified farmer she spoke with had $100,000 less revenue last year but qualified for only $4,900 of assistance.

"Why did you change that criteria?" Birdsell asked.

Jasper said revenue losses was the standard to "get you in the door" to apply for help, but the assistance should be reserved for farms who actually lost money.

"I would be opposed to giving aid to a farm that has been profitable," Jasper said.

A former House speaker, Jasper ran an egg farm on his Hudson property for many years.

Gov. Chris Sununu referred some complaints his office received, but Jasper said he had not heard directly from anyone concerned about this process.

"This is not an entitlement program either. It is one designed to help people in a devastating situation," Sununu said.

Fiscal Committee Chairman Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, said, "Perhaps the criteria should have been clearer."

Millions in storm damage

In February 2023, an extreme cold snap caused extensive damage for fruit growers in eight of the state's 10 counties, and unusually low temperatures three months later all but wiped out many crops of apples as well as extensive damage to peach and plum groves, according to state officials.

A survey of 1,000 farmers identified at least $15 million in damages, more than half of that to fruit crops.

Birdsell and others referred to a bipartisan bill for a $5 million farm assistance program (SB 494). The legislation from Sens. Donovan Fenton, D-Keene, and Dan Innis, R-Bradford, contained a reference from Jasper's agency to reimbursing farmers for a "percentage of losses."

"This is not the bill. It's a different program," Jasper said.

Last month, the Senate voted to send that bill off to study after Sununu announced his plans for this $8 million aid package.

If the criteria is changed now, Jasper said the program must be restarted, which could delay getting help to farms in time for this year's growing season.

"I am proud of the program we have put out; I am sorry about any confusion...it was not our intent to mislead you," Jasper said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman James Gray, R-Rochester, said he approved of Jasper's approach to limit help to farmers that were in the red.

"We don't want to be perceived as giving money to those that don't need it, as we did during a few times during the COVID process," Gray said.

Jasper said the agency will fully analyze a farm's profit-loss statements and consider whether the storms required unusual steps such as selling equipment to stay in business or buying crops at wholesale and then reselling them.

Only a few applications have come in. They will be accepted through mid-May.

Once that round ends, and if all the $8 million isn't spoken for, Jasper said the state could consider relaxing the requirements to spend the rest of it.

"We may revisit that later depending on the status of the awards," Jasper said.

State agencies have to spend all remaining ARPA money by later this fall or it will be returned to the federal treasury.

klandrigan@unionleader.com