DOAG: PLANT Grants: Evidence of a New Era

This article appeared in the December 4, 2013 edition of the Ag Report.

PLANT Grants:  Evidence of a New Era

Steven K. Reviczky, Commissioner


“Agriculture is a significant industry in Connecticut,” Governor Dannel P. Malloy told attendees of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association’s 94th annual meeting last month.  “And quite frankly, I don’t understand why you were ignored for so long.”


The contributions of Connecticut’s $3.5 billion agricultural industry and its 28,000 employees are not being ignored, and, in fact, have received considerable interest over the past few years.  Among the most visible demonstrations of recent attention has been the response to damage from 2013’s severe weather through the creation and distribution of the first-ever Production Loss Assistance Needed Today (PLANT) Grants. 


Starting with an historic blizzard in February, followed by drought in May, severe flooding in June, and then tornadoes in July, this year has presented Connecticut’s farmers with a series of serious weather-related challenges.  While farmers are resilient by nature and accustomed to dealing with Mother Nature’s whims, even the toughest among them found blow after blow after blow wearing heavily on their near-infinite optimism and resourcefulness. 


Governor Malloy watched these trials unfold and became increasingly concerned.  He visited some of the hardest-hit farms over two weeks in June to get a closer look and deeper understanding of what they were facing.  Recognizing the gaps in federal crop insurance programs for small, diversified farms, Governor Malloy realized the state could and should help. 


Taking immediate action, standing in a flooded field on Father’s Day, he directed the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg), in cooperation with the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), to create and administer the unprecedented multi-million-dollar PLANT Grant Program.  His directive was clear:  be quick, be thorough, and be effective.


DoAg and DECD designed the PLANT Grant to help Connecticut farmers replace things lost during weather events in 2013 that would not be covered by insurance.   The grant did not cover losses incurred before the beginning of the year, and did not cover lost income.  The intention was to help repair or replace damaged crops and equipment and keep those farmers growing and providing for Connecticut’s residents. 


With an application deadline set for July 1, the program was formally announced June 23, and with the help and partnership of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association (CFBA), applications were quickly distributed. 


Connecticut was then struck by two tornadoes in early July, leading Governor Malloy to extend the deadline two weeks so tornado damage could be included in the program.


As soon as the July 15 deadline passed, DoAg began considering the 274 applications, which asked for a total of nearly $14 million in assistance.  After each was carefully examined by Commissioner Reviczky and two other DoAg staff members, requests of more than $50,000 were forwarded to DECD for an additional review.


All applicants also were vetted by the Office of the Secretary of the State and the Department of Revenue Services to be sure the farms were properly registered to do business in the state and had no outstanding tax issues. 


The initial funding recommendations, based on eligible losses defined by program criteria, totaled more than $8.5 million.  This was significantly more than the potential $5 million approved for the program.  Recognizing the intention of the PLANT Grant was to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, DoAg and DECD established a formula to award approximately 55 percent to approved applicants in good standing. 


Again with help and support of CFBA, funding was awarded as quickly and efficiently as possible, while still ensuring due diligence and responsible management of taxpayer dollars. 


Success stories have already begun to emerge. 


Semkow Farms, a plant nursery in Colchester, suffered the loss of seven of their nine greenhouses as a result of the February blizzard.  Combined with the untimely death in July of the farm’s proprietor, Frank Semkow, the fate of this farm was in doubt.  Because the PLANT Grant has enabled the farm to rebuild, Frank’s niece Robia Semkow Kruse made the decision to move her family across the country back to Colchester.  She and her son, representing the fourth and fifth generations to work this land, will continue the proud tradition of the Semkow Family. 


“Dealing with the passing of a family member is hard enough without having to worry about running a business as well,” Semkow Kruse said.  “Receiving a PLANT Grant helped fuel my drive to relocate my family from Las Vegas, Nevada, and continue the operation of a farm that has been in my family for four generations.  Without the support from the state, this would not be possible.  Thank you, Governor Malloy!” 


East Hartford’s New England Garden Center lost four hydroponic greenhouses as a result of the February storm, incurring more than $150,000 in damages.  The loss potentially ended the farm’s exceptional growth from cultivation of hydroponic lettuce and a niche crop of specific peppers highly sought by restaurants. 


“The funds from this grant will help us immediately,” owner Steve Weinstein said.  “By allowing us to replace the damaged equipment and repair the damage to our greenhouses, we will be able to increase our production of peppers and hydroponic lettuce.” 


“For the past year,” Mr. Weinstein continued, “we have been unable to produce enough lettuce to supply our clients.  They have been purchasing lettuce from both out-of-state and out-of-county producers.  We will soon be in a position to retrieve some of that volume from those producers and add it to our capability, adding revenue and additional staff to our farm.”


Kasheta Farms, located in South Windsor and owned by Ed Kasheta, has been in business in the same family since 1905, beginning as a tobacco farm and later expanding into grain corn and sod.  The Kashetas were hurt by not only the blizzard in February, but also the June floods, losing more than 100 acres of corn and tobacco.


“We had to replant our fields three times, the last time by hand,” Mr. Kasheta reported.  “It’s so great to have the state be a true partner in Connecticut agriculture.  On behalf of our farm and all farmers in Connecticut, we’d like to thank Governor Malloy for his support.” 


The PLANT Grant has provided assistance to as many as 238 farms.  Grant awards ranged from as little as $156 to as much as $153,000, and have been used for crop replanting, fertilization, top dressing, livestock replacement, feed supplement, farm equipment repair/replacement, farm road repair, greenhouse replacement, infrastructure hardening, and more.


Regrettably, some applicants submitted requests for ineligible expenses such as income loss, non-agricultural production, and claims associated with pre-2013 storms, which could not be funded. 


Weather patterns over the last several years and their destruction to the state’s agricultural production have clearly demonstrated the need to strengthen farm infrastructure.  The PLANT Grant has helped do that.  Going forward, DoAg will give particular consideration in all grants it administers to applicants taking proactive steps to ensure that future storms are more effectively weathered.


DoAg is pleased and proud to have had the opportunity to provide a hand up to Connecticut’s hard-working farm families during difficult times.  This opportunity was a direct result of Governor Malloy’s support of the industry. 


Just like his Connecticut Grown poultry legislation, Farmland Restoration Program, and other initiatives he has conceived and put into motion, the PLANT Grant is an example of his interest in and commitment to growing a significant and strong agricultural industry that cares for its valuable farmland resources and provides for the residents of Connecticut.