WARWICK, RI – In an effort to support Rhode Island growers and food enterprises and help them successfully compete for federal grants, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) today brought together federal, state, and local food officials -- including representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) -- and producers from around Rhode Island for a forum about federal funding opportunities available from the USDA to support area agriculture, local food businesses, and the Rhode Island economy.
The workshop focused on efforts to help boost marketing and sales, support direct farm-to-fork programs, and improve food system distribution and sustainability. Federal officials outlined grant opportunities and loans obtainable through the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Rural Development (RD), Farm Service Agency (FSA), and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), including the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP), the Value-added Producer Grants Program, and the Renewable Energy Program. More than 30 participants were on hand and included Rhode Island farmers, fisherman, dairy producers, oyster growers, representatives from the restaurant and beverage industry, and other local food businesses.
Officials presenting at today’s forum included Jay Healy, the USDA Rural Development State Director for RI, CT, and MA; Joanne Demars, the USDA Rural Development Coordinator; Paul Brule, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Farm Service Agency; Pooh Vongkhamdy, Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Rhode Island State Conservationist; and Luanne Lohr, Associate Deputy Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Transportation and Marketing Program.
“This is about helping local food producers grow their marketplace, increase sales, and ultimately create more jobs here in Rhode Island. Rhode Island has so many great farmers, fishermen, and other producers. We want to work together and have the infrastructure in place to give consumers a fresh, local, trusted product, while keeping food dollars here in the local economy. Today’s workshop was a chance to bring together diverse aspects of our regional food system and help them explore the federal funding opportunities available to further their efforts to grow and flourish,” said Reed, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Chairman of the panel’s Interior and Environment Subcommittee. “Rhode Island’s agricultural industry doesn’t just contribute to the dinner table – it also contributes to tourism, open space, and conservation. Investing in sustainable agriculture in turn supports a healthy economy and environment for Rhode Islanders.”
Funding opportunities highlighted at the forum include:
• The Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program: Administered by AMS, the newly expanded FMLFPP – which Senator Reed strongly supported boosting -- makes $30 million available annually to farmers markets, other direct producer-to-consumer venues, and businesses in the local food supply chain. Half of the funding is available for marketing and promotional support for local food businesses, including food hubs, delivery and aggregation businesses, and processing and storage facilities. The other half is for marketing support for farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer outlets.
• Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program: $48 million in low-interest loans is available for local food projects through Rural Development’s Business and Industry Loan Guarantees. Non-profits, cooperative organizations, and businesses may apply for these loans for projects that benefit the local community.
• Value-added Producer Grants: This funding is available to help agricultural producers create new products, expand marketing opportunities, support further processing of existing products or goods, or to develop specialty and niche products. The grants may be used for working capital and planning activities. Eligible applicants include independent producers, farmer and rancher cooperatives, and agricultural producer groups. Funding priority is given to socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers or ranchers and to small- to medium-size family farms or farmer/rancher cooperatives. Rhody Fresh has successfully used this funding to bolster its marketing and help promote new products, such as its locally-made cheeses using milk from Rhody Fresh dairy farms.
• Community Facilities Loans and Grants: These loan funds may be used to construct, enlarge, or improve community facilities in rural areas and small towns. This can include costs to acquire land needed for a facility, pay necessary professional fees, and purchase equipment required for its operation. Lisa Raiola, the founder of Hope & Main, recently used a $2.99 million USDA Community Facilities loan to transform a 100-year-old shuttered school building on Main Street in Warren into the state’s first full-service food business incubator. Set to open its doors later this summer, Hope & Main helps local entrepreneurs jump-start early-stage food businesses with a special focus on supporting the local food system.
• Renewable Energy Funding: The USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provides assistance to agricultural producers and rural small businesses, offering loan guarantees and grants. The REAP program helps eligible applicants install renewable energy systems, make energy efficiency improvements, and conduct energy audits.
• Rural Community Development Initiative: This program is designed to help generate economic activity in rural areas by helping local and regional organizations assist small and emerging businesses. Funds may be used to develop the capacity and ability of private, non-profit community-based housing and community development organizations, and low income rural communities to improve housing, community facilities, community and economic development projects in rural areas.
• Specialty Crop Block Grants: This year, USDA is making over $255,000 in a Specialty Crop Block Grant available to DEM and to food and other specialty crop growers for a variety of projects. Specialty crops make up the bulk of what we eat -- all of our fruits and vegetables -- as well as things like nursery crops. Past recipients of these federal grants include: Farm Fresh Rhode Island; the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island; Beanhouses Inc.; and the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension.
These funding opportunities are cornerstones of the USDA’s commitment to support local and regional food systems. The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass map outlines several local and regional food projects supported by USDA and eleven other federal agencies.
With increasing consumer demand for fresh, local foods, Rhode Island’s food hubs help aggregate products from local farms so that large-volume buyers, such as restaurants and grocery stores, can buy local foods directly from family farms.
A cosponsor of the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, Senator Reed has been a champion of the “eat local” movement in Rhode Island and has long supported efforts to help boost Rhode Island’s food economy.