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Massachusetts legislators propose $20M grant fund for farmers affected by flood damage

Massachusetts senators announced a $20 million supplemental budget bill Monday, to assist farmers impacted by recent severe weather.

Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, traveled to Hatfield to speak about the bill. Standing alongside a group of farmers in fields near the Connecticut River, she spoke about July’s rains and the flooding that wiped out at least 2,000 acres of crops.

"[The funding] will hopefully make rebuilding a little bit easier for the farms that are picking up the pieces," Spilka said. "It's also a reminder, and I have to mention, because we can't forget about the fact that climate change is upon us."

The $20 million would be distributed as grants through the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, which Spilka said has deep connections within the farming community.

"It's flexible in its timetable and it would allow MDAR to give continued support over the many months to come to help these farms continue to deal with the severe impacts that we may not even know about today,” Spilka said.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure later this week and Spilka said she hopes House lawmakers will adopt a similar version.

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, left, met with farmers and other lawmakers in Hatfield, July 24, 2023. To her right, western Mass., farmers Jay Savage and Bernie Smiarowski.
Jill Kaufman
Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, left, met with farmers and other lawmakers in Hatfield, July 24, 2023. To her right, western Mass., farmers Jay Savage and Bernie Smiarowski.

Massachusetts State Sen. Jo Comerford, D- Northampton, organized Monday’s event. She credited farmer Bernie Smiarowski with letting lawmakers know the extent of the crop damage.

"As farmers, we love what we do," Smiarowski said. "For many of us, farming has been a part of our lives for generations... We want to grow our crop, sell it, and hopefully earn enough money to make a decent living."

Many farms are already carrying large amounts of debt, Smiarowski said, like lines of credit, mortgages, equipment and leases. The Senate aid package will assist all of them by providing financial resources without additional debt.

"We hate being in this position — at the mercy of a natural disaster losing all or a portion of our crop this year, unable to pay our bills," Smiarowski said. "The last thing we want is to have to sell a portion of our farm to make ends meet."

During the House's debate on the supplemental budget, Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, proposed a similar $20 million "Agricultural Disaster Relief Fund," but top Democrats omitted it from a mega-amendment package after closed-doors deliberations.

The Department of Agricultural Resources estimated last week that at least $15 million worth of crops have been lost due to flooding that affected at least 75 Massachusetts farms.

Governor Maura Healey has visited western Massachusetts on several occasions in July to tour storm damage and meet with affected farmers, though she has not outlined plans to put state dollars toward relief efforts.

Last week, she urged people to contribute to a fundraiser managed by United Way of Central Massachusetts that would support affected farmers.

This story includes reporting from Chris Lisinksi at the State House News Service.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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