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Open space grant program offers $1 million to Sonoma County farmers hit by pandemic

An economic study found Sonoma County farmers will lose $30 million to $60 million this year due to COVID-19.|

Concerned over the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on agriculture, Sonoma County’s open space district is offering $1 million in grants to farmers and ranchers who are financially imperiled by the pandemic, which has cost the local industry as much as $64 million this year.

The unprecedented grant program offers funding to food producers who can demonstrate the pandemic may prompt their lands to go fallow or be converted to nonagricultural uses.

Grants will be awarded to operators “who can commit to keeping the county’s diverse agricultural lands in production,” Bill Keene, the district’s general manager, said in a statement.

The need is far ranging, including smaller farm operators who may need help making their mortgage or lease payments, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which counts about 1,200 farming members.

Produce and duck producers may be hurt by reduced demand from restaurants, she said. Large grape growers and wineries have been hit more by the wildfires and smoke than the pandemic, Tesconi said.

But it’s hard to tell who will apply for grants, she said, because farmers are often loathe to make their troubles public and are accustomed “to ups and downs with market conditions.”

Among the first prosective grant applicants is FEED Sonoma, the cooperative where workers at the Petaluma warehouse were packing bins with organically grown produce.

Tim Page, who founded the organization in 2011, said pandemic-induced shutdowns forced him to pivot from selling produce wholesale to restaurants, caterers, corporate campus kitchens and grocery stores.

The co-op now makes retail sales to about 1,000 subscribers who buy weekly and bi-weekly bins of food distributed at points around the county as well as San Francisco and the East Bay.

The for-profit business — its full name is Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights — provides a “revenue stream” to about 65 local farms, down from about 80 farms previously, Page said.

“COVID has definitely changed a lot of things about the marketplace,” he said.

The county has about 400,000 acres — out of a total of about 1 million acres — engaged in agriculture, yielding products with a market value of $1.1 billion in 2018, according to the most recent crop report.

Farmers will lose about $32 million to nearly $64 million in crop value this year, according to a study by Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler commissioned by the open space district. Crop values won’t recover until at least 2022, his report said.

The taxpayer-supported district began working on the matching grant program to support farm producers in July.

Susan Gorin, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, which overses the open space district, said the district was tapped to provide financial assistance to farmers “to help keep their agricultural operations afloat during this volatile time.”

“We would love to see a diversity of agriculture funded,” said Jennifer Kuszmar, the district’s matching grant coordinator.

There is no limit on the amount of a grant request, but the district reserves the right to offer partial awards, she said.

The district expects the “financial need far outweighs” the available funding and will work with members of an advisory committee to develop recommendations to county supervisors.

Kuszmar said she expects the grants to be awarded before the end of the year.

The application deadline is Nov. 15 and application guidelines and forms, in English and Spanish, are available online at sonomaopenspace.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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