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The Farm Bill and U.S. Territories: Sustainable Agriculture Programs in Action

May 24, 2018


Farmers in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo credit: USDA NIFA.

Farmers in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo credit: USDA NIFA.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part blog series on how the farm bill impacts farmers and rural communities in the U.S. Territories. This series was written and researched by NSAC policy intern Dariana Mattei-Ramos, a native of Puerto Rico and an advocate for food and agriculture justice. Dariana holds a master’s degree in Food and Agriculture Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. The first post in this series provided a historical background on the U.S. territories, and this second post highlight how several USDA programs are implemented and accessed on the ground in the U.S. Territories.

Over the past three decades, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has helped to develop and implement numerous federal programs that help American farmers and ranchers build a more sustainable food and farm system. These programs provide a wide array of services, from working lands conservation to risk management support, to targeted outreach programs that seek to level the playing field for underserved farmer populations. In this second of three posts on the relationship between the farm bill and the U.S. territories, we will analyze how select USDA programs are utilized in the territories as well as where there are service gaps and potential opportunities for improvement.

When analyzing program use and performance in the territories, it is important to note that although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) collects and reports data uniformly for the contiguous states, available data on USDA programs usage in the territories varies widely. Generally, Puerto Rico has the most robust publicly available USDA data of all the territories, which may be attributed to its larger population. Generally, however, data is lacking because USDA does not set aside dedicated funding for data collection in the small islands, and some territorial governments lack the capacity to compile the data themselves.

Research and Extension 

Of all the programs we evaluated, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program had the most available data on utilization in the territories. There were no grants to any of the territories for the first five years of the SARE program; the first awards to projects in the territories were made in 1995 to researchers in American Samoa and Puerto Rico. Among the territories, Guam ranks highest in the number of awards, with 43 grants over the past 30 years. Since many funded SARE projects are administered by academic institutions, some of the territories are included in research and education projects funded through the University of Hawaii. Figures 1 and 2 below show SARE awards to each territory in numbers of awards and dollars awarded, respectively.

Figure 1

Figure 2

SARE award statistics to date for the U.S. Territories are as follows:

  • American Samoa: One research and education project; three professional development projects; and 32 producer-led projects. Many of the projects in American Samoa focuses on the development of aquaculture.
  • Guam: Nine research and education projects; eight professional development projects; and 21 producer-led projects.
  • Northern Mariana Islands: One research and education project; two professional development projects; and 20 producer-led projects. Similar to American Samoa, aquaculture is an important part of the grants in Northern Mariana Islands.
  • Puerto Rico: Six research and education projects; two professional development projects; eight producer-led projects; one on farm research; and one sustainable community innovation. In general, most of the grants focus on coffee production.
  • S. Virgin Islands: Five research and education projects; one on farm research project; one sustainable community innovation project; one professional development project.

A SARE report on the Western Region (Pacific Islands) provides some additional information on some innovative projects in this region. A Northern Mariana Islander farmer, for example, developed a project focusing on creating value-added products from taro to increase yield and improve marketability. In an effort to spread the word about the SARE program throughout the territories, the Pacific Region held a conference in 2014 where stakeholders from Pacific territories convened to share strategies and discuss opportunities in the region.

Conservation and Energy

In terms of program eligibility and outreach, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) groups the territories into two regions: the Caribbean Area and Pacific Islands. The Caribbean is comprised of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, which are both eligible for financial assistance programs. The Pacific Islands includes: Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, Mariana Islands and Marshall Islands. Of these, only Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and Mariana Islands are eligible for financial assistance programs through USDA’s NRCS.

Across the United States, farmers and ranchers have enrolled 72 million acres in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which supports advanced on-farm conservation activities. However, only 2,700 of those acres are located in the Carribean Area, and all of those 2,700 acres are in Puerto Rico. Since 2009, there have been 46 CSP contracts awarded to farmers in Puerto Rico. In the Pacific Islands, USDA obligated a total of $3.2 million for 33 CSP contracts on nearly 10,000 acres between 2009 and 2017.

USDA’s other primary working lands conservation program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), has been much more widely used in the territories. In the Caribbean Region, between 2009 and 2017, USDA obligated a total of $62 million in cost-share payments for more than 2,900 EQIP contracts on nearly 105,000 acres. In the Pacific Basin, USDA obligated $91 million for contracts with nearly 1,600 farmers and ranchers on more than 153,000 acres.

While the number of acres enrolled in the program has been high, the percentage of EQIP applicants successfully getting into the program has decreased significantly since 2009 across both regions (see Figure 3). This trend points to the need for targeted outreach and assistance to farmers in the territories, and for research and reporting by NRCS that would uncover and suggest solutions to barriers to participation in the territories. It is clear that further analysis is needed in order to understand the dynamics and fluctuations of conservation assistance in the U.S. Territories.

(Figure 3, data source: NRCS)

In addition to conservation programs, farmers in the territories have used USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which awards grants and loans to farmers in rural areas to help them transition to wind, solar, or other renewable energy systems. Since 2008, REAP has awarded 14 grants in the U.S. Virgin Islands and 15 in the Western Pacific Territories (note that this figure may include the Federated States of Micronesia, which is a free associated state, not a territory of the United States). USDA has provided 51 REAP awards (grants and loans) in Puerto Rico. While the program is gaining popularity in Puerto Rico, program usage has decreased from 2009 to 2016 in the Virgin Islands and the Western Pacific Territories.

Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

According to the definition used by most farm bill programs, “beginning farmers” are those farmers who have never previously operated a farm or ranch, or have operated a farm or ranch for no more than 10 years. According to the most recent Agricultural Census data, there are 4,782 beginning farmers in four of the five territories (data for American Samoa is unavailable). Puerto Rico has the highest number of beginning farmers with 4,549 (35 percent of total farmers); in second place are the Northern Mariana Islands with 128 (50 percent of total farmers), followed by the U.S. Virgin Islands with 77 (35 percent of total farmers), and Guam with 28 (27 percent of total farmers). The average age of farmers in the U.S Territories is 56, younger than the national average age of 58 (as of 2012) for farmers in the U.S. states.

Like in the rest of the U.S., there is a dire need for new farmers throughout the territories to sustain and grow their agricultural economies. This is especially crucial in Puerto Rico and Guam, where the average age of their farmers is higher than the national average at 59. While demand for resources to support the next generation may be high in the territories, assistance is still low; only one project (in 2011) serving new farmers in the territories has ever been funded through USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).

USDA support to organizations in the territories through the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers program (also known as the “Section 2501” program) has also been surprisingly low. Section 2501 is a unique program that provides critical support to farmers of color and military veterans, helping them access USDA programs and to find success in owning and operating their own farms. Given the focus of the program, and the fact that most of the populations of all five U.S. Territories are considered “socially disadvantaged groups” by USDA, it is surprising that so few projects have been funded through this program over the past 15 years. Since 2003, only four 2501 grants were awarded to projects serving socially disadvantaged farmers in the territories.

Of the four grants awarded in the territories, three were awarded to the University of Puerto Rico and one was awarded to the University of Hawaii (which included Guam, Palau, Northern Mariana Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia as part of their geographic impact). This lack of focus on outreach to farmers in the territories is especially concerning given that these island regions have a population of nearly two million. Further analysis is needed to understand why there are so few BFRDP and 2501 projects within the territories, and what steps are needed to improve outreach and program access to farmers in these regions.

Farm Service Agency Loans 

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) provides direct and guaranteed farm ownership and operating loans for farmers and ranchers of all kinds. Direct loans are made by FSA, while guaranteed loans are made by banks, credit unions, community development financial institutions (CDFIs), or other lenders, with a federal guarantee against significant loss of principal or interest. Over the past five years, most of the FSA loans provided to farmers in the U.S. territories have been direct loans, as shown in the graph below.

Source: USDA’s Farm Service Agency

Loan data for the U.S. Territories is divided into three region classifications: Puerto Rico, West Pacific, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In general, the region (and territory) with the largest loan distribution since 2013 has been Puerto Rico (see graph below).

Source: USDA’s Farm Service Agency

Local Food

Since 2006, 33 Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) awards were granted to Puerto Rico farmers, helping to boost the territory’s local and regional food economy. In contrast, only one VAPG award has been granted to farmers in the neighboring territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands as of 2016. This disparity between islands that are so close to each other raises questions about the capacity and outreach of USDA Rural Development office in the Caribbean, and mirrors trends in the contiguous United States, where VAPG outreach and program success vary greatly from state to state. In the Pacific Region, only four VAPG awards have been granted between 2006 and 2016: three in Guam and one in the Federated States of Micronesia (which is not a U.S. Territory, as previously explained).

The Farmers Markets and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) supports the establishment, development, and marketing of farmers markets and other local food infrastructure. FMLFPP grants offer a dual benefit: they help increase the intake of fresh produce and incentivize the local economy, improving access to healthy food on these islands that are very sensitive to climate change impacts. However, since 2006, only three awards have been granted to support local food systems within the territories: one in Guam and two in Puerto Rico. This program could be a key resource to help territories improve their local food systems, decrease their dependence on food imports, and help them achieve food security.

Additionally, only two territories, with one grant each, have benefited from USDA’s Farm to School grant funding: the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in 2015 and 2017 respectively. However, only private schools in Puerto Rico are participating in current farm to school activities, leaving out low-income children, who primarily attend public schools.

Crop Insurance and Disaster Relief 

“Crop insurance” typically refers to risk management coverage for commodity crops (e.g., corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton), although there are also limited crop insurance policies available for “specialty crops” (fruits, vegetables, minor grains, nuts, etc.). This focus on commodities has been a limiting factor of the program, as it leaves smaller, more diversified farms – which are the mainstay of agriculture in the territories – underserved by federal safety net programs. In Puerto Rico, for example, the predominant crops that are covered under crop insurance are: coffee, bananas and plantains, vegetables, citrus, fruit orchards and sugar cane. There is no data on crop insurance for the rest of U.S. Territories.

For non-insurable crops, farmers have the option to purchase a quasi-crop insurance coverage directly through FSA through the Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP). In 2017, FSA reported that Hawaii and the Pacific Basin region (which includes Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands) received funding for crop losses through NAP, in addition to other disaster assistance programs.

After Hurricanes Irma and María in recent years, supplemental USDA disaster assistance funds were provided to farmers in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to help in the recovery efforts in the agriculture sector.

One program that could potentially provide substantial support to small scale farmers in the territories is the Risk Management Agency’s Whole Farm Revenue Protection crop insurance policy. This program is tailored to the needs of small and diversified farms and offers crop-neutral (i.e. “whole-farm”) revenue insurance coverage. However, this program is currently not available in the territories. With the territories already suffering extreme losses and damages due to climate change impacts, an assessment is sorely needed to address how USDA can expand and tailor farm safety net programs to better support the U.S. Territories.

Moving Forward

The farm bill provides many important resources to American farmers; those resources, however, are unevenly distributed between U.S. states and territories. Though the specific barriers to participation in the territories differ by program and region, it is clear that improvements to USDA’s program implementation, delivery, and outreach are needed to more effectively connect farmers in the five U.S. Territories with federal resources.

In the third and final blog in this series, we will discuss the main challenges farmers and organizations operating within the territories face in accessing federal programs. We will also suggest policy and administrative changes that could potentially help catalyze sustainable agriculture throughout the U.S. Territories.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Research, Education & Extension


2 responses to “The Farm Bill and U.S. Territories: Sustainable Agriculture Programs in Action”

  1. Erik says:

    Very good article. I just came home from PR yesterday after AT&T cancelled our fiber optics contracts. Before I left, however, I was able to visit Cooperativa de Madre Tierra local organic farmers market in San Juan. I was struck by the lack of organic produce on the island as a whole, and even at CMT. One can find pre-packed organic food in relative abundance at various stores but barely ANY of the organic food is fresh. Also, I’d love to know why a large island in the tropics has to import 95% of its food… Anyway, I’m looking forward to the third part of the series!

  2. Great article for sure. I’m from the US Virgin Island of St.Croix and I will tell you that while we have come a long way with agricultural production this article made me see just how much more that can be done. The islands have just become very dependent on imported and processed food. Many of us have left for the mainland for education and just stayed. It will take folks like me who have the know how to go back.

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