by Edith Tucker
Governor Chris Sununu announced his plans for allocating nearly half the total federal CARES Act coronavirus relief fund (“flex funds”) that New Hampshire has received on May 15.
A whopping $400 million of the total $1.25 billion federal grant will provide emergency help to small for-profit NH businesses that were harmed – and in many cases are still being harmed – by economic disruptions caused by COVID-19, he explained. Only companies with less than $20 million in annual revenues in the 2019 tax year will be eligible for this Main Street Relief Fund.
Six other categories – farmers, nonprofit organizations, public higher education, childcare providers, the state food bank and healthcare providers – will divvy up an additional $195 million. Some $250 million has already been distributed.
Sununu authorized allocating and spending $10 million in emergency funding to support New Hampshire dairy farmers, fruit, vegetable and ornamental plant growers, and maple syrup producers to pay for COVID-19-related expenses and lost revenues over 10 months: March 1 – Dec. 30. Specifically, he authorized the allocation of $4.5 million to dairy farmers for milk price support. He also allocated $1.5 million to fruit, vegetable and ornamental plant growers and maple syrup producers in order to ease the burden of substantial new pandemic-related costs, such as extra cleaning and sanitizing, ensuring social distancing and covering any lost revenues.
These programs will be administered by the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food.
The department will calculate dairy farmers’ relief payments on a monthly basis, up to a total of $4.5 million. It will tally every dairy farmer’s lost revenue from falling milk prices by comparing the price actually paid for milk shipped into the fluid milk market to the Agri-Mark Northeast Milk Price Forecasts, 2019-2020, dated Feb. 28, 2020. The lost revenue amount will be adjusted for insurance by deducting any payout if the dairy farmer had purchased insurance, or the premium amount that the dairy farmer would have paid had it been purchased. The monthly relief payment to each dairy farmer will be that farmer’s lost revenue during the applicable month(s), adjusted for insurance.
The department will obtain this information and process payments automatically, with no need for a formal request or application. Each dairy farmer, however, must submit a signed award agreement before checks will be cut.
The relief payments to be made to growers and maple syrup producers will also be calculated on a monthly basis, provided that the farmer had at least $50,000 of calendar year 2019 gross sales, has incurred COVID-19-related expenses and/or lost revenue during the applicable month(s).
The $1.5 million allocation will be divided up from March to December, based on historical sales. The department will require eligible farmers to submit actual pandemic-related expense and lost revenue information every month and, after review, will process relief payments based on each one’s monthly proportional share.
Because of uncertainty around the food supply, the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR) is reserving $4 million to make emergency grants should the need arise. Should the department determine that a specific industry requires support in order to continue production, GOFERR will work to administer aid to that industry, consistent with CARES Act guidance.
Another $5 million was earmarked for the NH Food Bank to help restock empty food pantry shelves across the state. Sununu authorized this direct emergency grant as well as an additional $3 million in emergency funds to be held in reserve to address additional needs. The NH Food Bank is working to increase food purchasing and meal production and to provide additional resources. Although distribution has increased, the food bank has received fewer donations. These additional dollars will support the food bank’s efforts to address the rise of COVID-19-related food insecurity.
When Sununu determined the size of each allocation for these emergency aid programs, he relied on timely information and data gathered, synthesized and prioritized by the Stakeholder Advisory Board and the Legislative Advisory Board.
Dairy farmer Scott Mason of North Stratford serves on the Stakeholder Committee, representing both agriculture and the state’s northern-most counties. He works closely with Ag Commissioner Shawn Jasper and NH Farm Bureau Policy Director Rob Johnson. Mason believes it is particularly important during such a crisis to reach out to a cross-section of interests.
UNH Cooperative Extension quickly drew up a helpful survey. Information was also sought from a range of ag-related organizations: NH Farm Credit, Agri-Mart, Dairy Farmers of America Association, Northeast Organic Farming Association, NH Fair Association, New England Farmers Union, NH Maple Producers Association, NH Agricultural Mediation Program, NH Horse Council, NH Sheep Breeders Association, Farm Service Agency and NH Food Alliance, plus former Ag Commissioner Lorraine Stuart Merrill.
“Two-thirds of the state’s dairy farmers likely will go out of business because of COVID-19, if they don’t receive economic relief soon,” Jasper warned. Losses are expected to be in the $5 million-plus range, but the number is a moving target, he said.
Vegetable, plant and flower growers are likely to need between $2.5 – $3 million, primarily to pay for additional labor costs, changes that would make facilities safer for workers and customers and to pay for personal protective equipment and cleaning materials, Jasper testified.
Johnson spelled out the pandemic’s dire economic consequences for dairy farming. “New Hampshire has about 90 licensed dairy farms,” Johnson said. “They received on average about $19.25 per hundredweight in December 2019, but in April on average only about $15.25 per hundredweight, resulting in a 20% drop. This is a reduction in cash receipts for April milk sold versus December milk sold of about $8,750 for a dairy farm milking just over 100 cows.” But, he pointed out, “our farms are much more than part of our food supply; they are also an important part of who we are as a state and why people come here to visit.”
“New Hampshire has really stepped up for her farmers,” Mason said. “I believe that Governor Sununu has created the largest state farmer aid package in our state’s history, all targeted to helping commercial farmers deal with the COVID-19 economic crisis. With a total of $10 million allocated for agriculture, that’s half again as large as the normal annual operating budget of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food.”
The NH Ag Grants program is found at goferr.nh.gov/covid-expenditures/nh-agriculture-grants. The Main Street Relief Fund is at goferr.nh.gov/covid-expenditures/main-street-relief-fund.