The San Juan Daily Star
Funds for farmers delivered at a snail’s pace
By The Star Staff
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Jorge Alfredo Rivera Segarra this week held the sixth public hearing related to the ReGrow Program, a federal initiative that consists of an allocation of $92.5 million in funds to help small farmers affected by Hurricane Maria, whose income from farming is less than $350,000 annually.
“As of today, only 288 cases have been addressed with $19 million disbursed, out of the $92.5 million available. This is the same situation we have seen before, where bureaucracy kills initiatives of this type,” Rivera Segarra said. “This is aggravated because, on top of the damage caused by Hurricane Maria, there is also the damage caused by Fiona.”
“House Resolution 347 allowed us to investigate how these funds have been allocated. Originally ReGrow was assigned to the Department of Housing [DV], which assigned it to the Science and Technology Trust,” the lawmaker noted. “In August last year, the central government transferred the project to the Department of Agriculture [DA]. The farmers complain that the heavy and immense bureaucracy has tremendously limited the allocation of funds.”
Mayra Texidor López, for the Housing Department, and Jorge Campos, for the Agriculture Department, testified at the hearing. Currently, 160 cases filed by farmers have been denied; according to the guidelines established by the DA, “many are cases that do not comply with the cost-benefit, income that is not consistent with the project, or because of cases of bankruptcy,” Campos said.
Rep. Lisie Burgos Muñiz presented at the hearing documentation of a case that was rejected four times, and now its operation has been halted due to the floods caused by Hurricane Fiona.
“In that case, the ReGrow Program applies for damages from Hurricane Maria only,” Texidor López pointed out.
Currently, Campos said, the Department of Agriculture grants up to $5,000 for damages caused by Hurricane Fiona.
Rep. Mariana Nogales Molinelli questioned how the DA and DV granted subsidies to ‘start-up’ type initiatives when they had not been created before the passage of Hurricane Maria.
“ReGrow is supposed to be for established agricultural businesses that suffered damage,” she said.
She also asked the deponents how many start-ups have benefited, and the deponents did not have the information at hand. On that issue, among others, the Agriculture Committee gave the deponents three days to submit the information.
On Oct. 25 of last year, the Puerto Rico Farmers Association, through its president, Héctor I. Cordero Toledo, called on the Housing Department to take action on the process of disbursement of the allocated Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds. The ReGrow Program started in December 2020 and closed in April of this year.
“At that time, the program had $92.5 million allocated, for which $20 million had been directed for administration and $72.5 for farmers,” Rivera Segarra said. “That’s the information we have at the moment. Once again, we are seeing how the bureaucratic tangle delays the processes and hinders the recovery of Puerto Rican agriculture.”
New loan program available for farmers & agribusinesses
For those farms damaged by Hurricane Fiona, Agriculture (DA) Secretary Ramón González Beiró announced a new Emergency Loan Financing Program on Thursday.
The financing, which will be granted through the Agricultural Development Innovation Fund (FIDA by its Spanish acronym) is aimed at individual farmers, agribusinesses, agro-industries, agricultural cooperatives and value-added companies.
González Beiró said the financing, whose interest rate is 4 percent, can be used for the items included in the Emergency Program for Investments, Equipment, Works and Permanent Improvements, and other emergency aid granted by the agricultural regions. Also, the money can be used for operating capital, purchase of consumables, rehabilitation of structures, non-incentivized equipment, and inventory of seeds and animals.
The two categories included in the Emergency Loan Financing Program are term loans with financing ranging from $5,000 to $150,000 and non-incentive term loans with funding of up to $300,000.
Any agribusiness owner eligible for the DA Emergency Program grant and in need of more funds can apply for the Emergency Loan Financing Program through FIDA.
More information can be attained by visiting the FIDA office on the second floor of the Agriculture Department at 1309 Manuel Fernández Juncos Ave., San Juan, or by communicating via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and through the eight agricultural regions around the island: Mayagüez, San Germán, Arecibo, Caguas, Ponce, Naranjito, Utuado and Lares.