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Disaster relief fund for Massachusetts farmers advances on Beacon Hill

Ruined crops at Natural Roots Farm in Conway, Massachusetts, after the July 2023 floods.
Courtesy of David Fisher
Ruined crops at Natural Roots Farm in Conway, Massachusetts, after the July 2023 floods.

Massachusetts lawmakers have advanced a bill that would create the structure for a disaster relief fund for farmers. It would distribute financial aid after major losses due to extreme weather.

The bill is a response to ongoing significant natural disasters farmers have been experiencing, said state Rep. Natalie Blais of Deerfield, who originally offered the bill with then-Sen. Anne Gobi, now the state's director of rural affairs.

"Little did we know how much this bill would come into play, given the significant challenges that farmers have faced," Blais said, "whether it's a drought or the COVID-19 pandemic, [or] the floods and the freezes and the frosts that we saw over this last year."

There's little federal assistance for farmers when they experience crop loss related to weather, Blais said, noting that these sorts of natural disasters are going to keep happening.

In 2022, when farmers in Massachusetts were among those who experienced severe drought and in 2023, when many were impacted by heavy rains that flooded fields, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated western Massachusetts counties as "Primary Natural Disaster Areas." This allowed the USDA Farm Service Agency to extend emergency loans to farmers.

"What we heard directly from farmers was that providing them with loans, puts them further in the hole," Blais said.

The disaster relief fund would be funded through donations and public and private grants, though in December, the Healey administration announced $20 million in cash assistance to central and western Massachusetts farmers whose crops were damaged.

That was half of what was needed, Blais said.

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."