(The Center Square) – As the state fair and harvest season reap attention on North Carolina’s No. 1 industry, more federal assistance to agriculture will ensure those who make it happen can continue to thrive.
Over multiple weeks since late September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued more than $1.75 billion in emergency relief payments to farmers and livestock producers to cover losses from natural disasters in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
The payments include $581 million in relief payments for drought and wildlife emergencies through an Emergency Livestock Relief Program, as well as $1.17 billion in Emergency Relief Program funding for crop disaster assistance payments to farmers for losses in 2021 and 2022.
A separate USDA Organic Dairy Marketing Assistance Program will bring another $5 million to dairy producers to help with higher input and transportation costs, unstable feed supply and higher prices that have taken a toll on the organic dairy industry.
That funding follows $15 million in prior payments from the program run through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency for certified organic dairy operations that produce milk from cows, goats and sheep.
“This program is critical to keeping small, organic dairies sustainable as they continue to weather a combination of challenges outside of their control,” Bob Etheridge, North Carolina Farm Services Agency state executive director, said in a statement. “The funding from (the program) will give organic dairy producers additional economic support to stay in operation until markets return to more favorable conditions.”
In addition, the USDA recently announced $65 million in available grants through a Farm Labor Stabilization and Protection Pilot Program aimed at addressing workforce shortages in the agriculture industry.
The grants will work to expand lawful migration for workers from Northern Central America in the Department of Labor’s seasonal H-2A visa program, with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. The competitive grants will be eligible for those who meet the regulatory requirements of the H-2A program, including fixed-site employers, joint-employers, agricultural associations, and H-2A labor contractors.
Grants of between $25,000 and $2 million will be based on the projected number of full-time equivalent agricultural employees, and will require applicants to demonstrate insufficient availability of local resident workers.
The USDA is accepting applications for the program through Nov. 28.
“Our country is facing growing agricultural workforce challenges that jeopardize our farmers’ ability to be competitive, threatens the resiliency, abundance and safety of our food system, and has repercussions on our overall economy,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “This program has been designed with significant input from immigration, labor, and agricultural stakeholders in an effort to help address these immediate challenges.”
The economic impact of North Carolina agriculture, the state’s largest industry, hit $103.2 billion last year, increasing over the prior year by more than 11%. The economics are driven in large part by the state’s status as a leading producer of pork, eggs, chicken, tobacco, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, though the number of farms and land devoted to agriculture has steadily declined over the last decade or more.
North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has repeatedly highlighted how the state’s economic development and clean energy initiatives contribute to the decline, and worked to preserve more than 30,000 acres through the state’s Ag Development and Farm Preservation Trust Fund.
A report from the American Farmland Trust found North Carolina ranks second in the nation in potential farmland loss by 2040, behind only Texas, with a projected loss of 1.1 million acres. There is about 8.3 million acres of farmland in North Carolina.
Efforts were unsuccessful by The Center Square for answers to questions of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, the USDA’s North Carolina Farm Services Agency office, and the North Carolina State Extension office.