ANNAPOLIS — At the direction of Gov. Larry Hogan, the Maryland Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources have now provided more than $9 million in COVID-19 relief funding to farmers, watermen and seafood producers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented hardship for so many, and while Maryland’s farmers and producers are certainly no exception, they have continued to work hard every single day to support our food supply chain,” Hogan said. “We remain strongly committed to helping Maryland’s agricultural community as we weather this storm together.”

This relief is part of the more than $600 million in emergency economic relief that the state has announced during the COVID-19 pandemic. MDA’s Maryland Farmer COVID-19 Relief Fund granted nearly $5 million to farmers impacted by the pandemic. DNR has dedicated $3 million for direct payments to commercial, for-hire, aquaculture and seafood processing operations whose 2020 revenue has suffered a loss of greater than 35% due to COVID-19, plus $1 million to fund seafood marketing and business support for individuals in the seafood industry.

“Delmarva Fisheries Association applauds the efforts of Gov. Hogan and his administration, and specifically the secretary of Department of Natural Resources and her staff for moving forward with the allocation of the COVID-19 package to help with a financial burden that has been placed upon those in the seafood industry in Maryland,” Captain Robert Newberry stated in an email to The Star Democrat. Newberry is chairman of the trade organization Delmarva Fisheries Association Inc.

“The watermen of Maryland are a very important factor in the food chain supply to the general public, and are considered essential workers,” Newberry wrote.

“This year has been a challenge unlike any other, and that is especially true for the state’s food production businesses,” said MDA Secretary Joe Bartenfelder, a Caroline County farmer. “While we understand this money will not make everyone whole, it is the least we can do to provide some relief to the men and women who have worked throughout this public health crisis to ensure that we continue to have reliable access to a safe food supply.”

The Maryland Farmer COVID-19 Relief Program was announced by Governor Hogan on Oct. 19. The program provided direct payments to contract poultry growers at a rate of $1,000 per poultry house (capped at five houses per farm). Growers whose flocks were depopulated due to disruptions related to COVID-19 were eligible for an additional $1,500 per house. The program also provided 15% bonus payments to any Maryland farmer who received funding from the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 1 (CFAP1). This covered a wide range of commodities, including grain, livestock, dairy, and produce.

“Grain farmers deal with a lot of uncertainty every year, and 2020 was no different, (but it was) exacerbated, obviously, by COVID, And so farmers were planting crops in the spring with uncertain markets and low prices,” said Lindsay Thompson, executive director of Maryland Grain Producers.

The Maryland Farmer COVID-19 Relief Program paid $1.99 million to poultry growers and $2.86 million in CFAP1 bonus payments. In total, the program dispersed $4.86 million to 1,363 Maryland farm families. MDA worked swiftly to review applications within seven days of receipt. Approved applications were forwarded to the comptroller’s office for payment.

“Through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program at the federal level, and the bonus payment offered at the state level — which not many states did that I am aware of for agriculture — I think that most grain farmers were able to make it work in 2020,” Thompson said. “So we are certainly appreciative for that assistance, and definitely thankful to the governor and MDA for that.”

Holly Porter, executive director of the Delmarva Chicken Association, expressed the gratitude of the trade association and “the more than 600 farm families that raise broiler chickens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (who) are grateful for the Maryland Farmer COVID-19 Relief program and the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s streamlined process.”

“Contract chicken growers did not qualify for federal funds from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) 1 or 2, but many farms felt the impact, like other parts of agriculture,” Porter said. “These funds will help growers who had a loss in revenue, due to longer layouts, decreased capacity or depopulation.”

DNR began its program Nov. 4, and already more than $330,000 has been paid out in the first round of funding. To date, the state received more 440 applications for relief to the seafood industry, and about 340 have already been approved; the department will continue its outreach until the application deadline of Feb. 28, 2021. Additional money will be distributed to grantees in spring 2021.

“This funding provides much needed relief to help eligible individuals in the seafood industry get through these tough market conditions,” said DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, a Talbot County native.

“With the governor’s leadership and our strong federal partnerships, we have worked to make the application process as seamless as possible for those who need it,” she said. “We will continue working with industry on long-term strategies to recover and strengthen Maryland’s markets post-pandemic.”

Agriculture and seafood industry leaders are grateful for the help as markets, particularly seafood restaurants, and decreased demand for products.

“It has been a challenging year not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also with the market result of limited purchasing due to the restaurant closures, specifically during the striped bass season and the oyster season at hand,” Newberry wrote. “Hopefully, some of this funding will help those that need it, and with the marketing money that has been allocated, new markets will be explored.”

“The relief program is just one small way to help growers who continued to step up during the pandemic to make sure that citizens throughout Maryland had food on their tables,” Porter said.

Follow me on Twitter @connie_stardem.

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