Small business owners in the Central Valley are among those hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic — especially farmers, ranchers and others in the agriculture industry. To address the concerns of local growers, Rep. Josh Harder held a virtual town hall on Friday that provided info on assistance available to small farm operations in the Valley and the changes that have been made to ensure agriculture here is sustained.
Joined by Dawn Golik, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Deputy Director of its Fresno District, and Corey Williams, public information officer for the Office of Disaster Assistance, Harder fielded questions from two dozen participants on a variety of different ag-related topics, from utilizing would-be-wasted products in food banks to guidance on how to remain safe and healthy during harvest season.
While a lot Central Valley farmers were left out of original funding opportunities, much has changed since the pandemic first began. Thanks to bills by both Harder himself and large bipartisan groups, adjustments have been made to include local growers in not only relief funding provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but also in the SBA’s Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program for the first time in over 30 years.
The help comes just in time, Harder said, as farmers like a tomato grower he spoke to in Patterson suffer the consequences of stay-at-home orders and the loss of the restaurant industry.
“One of the prior cornerstones of our office has been jobs and economic development, and that’s especially true for our ag community,” Harder said. “Now, we’re in an uncertain situation that has a lot of challenges for our basic economic way of life here in the Valley.”
Harder listed the different ways farmers can receive aid. Though the $16 million in direct relief to farmers from the $19 million of agriculture funding in the CARES Act was originally available only to farmers with gross incomes of $900,000, Harder said that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has heard criticism about the restrictions and will be changing the income cap.
There was plenty of outcry over the income cap from Central Valley farmers, where agriculture is a profitable industry that makes up most of the economy. It’s not uncommon for a farm in Stanislaus County to make well over the limit of $900,000 in gross income.
“There are common rules we deal with in our Valley, that rules are written for folks outside our area,” Harder said. “We need to make sure they're adapted to our region...it takes a large scale (farm) operation to be successful in California.”
The remaining $3 million in the ag-dedicated CARES funding is being used so that the USDA can purchase food from farmers that would otherwise be dumped and donate it to local food banks.
One participant asked Harder if there would be any reimbursement for businesses that have to pay their employees two weeks’ worth of sick leave should they be quarantined for COVID-19, as one of their employees had.
“What type of leave is required and is there any support available?” the participant asked. “I’m worried about how our operation is going to be able to afford mandated paid leave.”
Harder explained that he wrote a bill that was signed into law by President Donald Trump, which provides federal reimbursement of sick leave to farmers and small businesses that are mandated to give the sick employees time off.
“We’ve seen small businesses across the country have to allow folks to take sick leave, which can be a real cost to the business,” Harder said. “...It’s not the employee’s fault and it’s not the employer’s fault they’re getting sick.”
Harder also authored a bill that allows farmers to apply for grants and loans through the EIDL program, should they not be eligible for the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program. According to Williams, farmers haven’t been eligible for the program for decades. Harder encouraged farmers to apply for every program possible.
“This is important because a lot of farmers don't have large payrolls throughout the year and they’re not fit for PPP,” Harder said. “...Now this new program allows farmers to be eligible for emergency assistance as well.”
Those who need assistance applying for the EIDL program or need to make changes to their applications can contact the office’s customer service line at 1-800-659-2955 or email@example.com.
Many farmers were left out of the first round of PPP funding, which ran out quickly as more loans were given out in April than in the last 14 years. A second round of funding has begun, and Golik recommended those who didn’t receive aid reach out to a different lender this time around. The lender list has expanded since the first round, she added, with more community-based banks and credit unions added.
“It speaks to the volume of need for small businesses who are having difficulty taking care of their employees,” she said. “...For all of our small businesses, no matter what industry you’re in, you are not alone right now in trying to figure out questions.”
The best way to reach the local SBA district with questions is by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 559-487-5791. Those who have applied for assistance and have not heard back can also contact Harder’s office at 209-579-5458.