They claim that the Housing Department's guidelines for applying for CDBG-DR funds don’t align with their reality.

Facebook/Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico

To access recovery funds, small-scale farmers are expected to drop their pick and hoe to write  business plans and submit documents such as payroll, affidavits and even college diplomas.

A coalition of organizations dedicated to farming asked the Puerto Rico Department of Housing (DV) to address their claims to guarantee equitable access to recovery funds from the Puerto Rico Agricultural Re-Grow Program, since the guidelines to request funds do not respond to the needs and realities of the small-scale Puerto Rican farmer.

The Re-Grow program has $92.5 million in funding from the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program. Of that amount, $30 million was set aside for the administrative work to be done by the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust, an entity the DV hired   to implement the program.

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) had access to messages in which, since September 2020, the coalition asked the Trust to amend the Re-Grow program guidelines. The coalition, that promotes a fair recovery, is composed of the Fundación Bucarabón from Maricao, the Centros de Apoyo Mutuo Jíbaro from Lares y Bartolo, the Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, Agro-Mujer, Mujeres de Islas, from the island municipality of Culebra and the Congreso de Pescadores.

Katia Avilés, a member of the Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, said that each time they have submitted requests for amendments to the program guidelines, the Trust’s response has been that the requirements for farmers applying for assistance follow the regulations of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency that allocates CDBG-DR funds.

“Requests for amendments have been submitted since before the guidelines were released. Program amendments have been requested. Meetings with the Science Trust have been requested and they hide behind the federal issue, behind federal regulations, but we know that the plan is established by the state [or territory]. What sets CDBG-DR funds apart is flexibility. The state is the one that sets the rules, so hiding behind the fact that this is the way the feds want it — well, it’s not like that,” Avilés told the CPI.

“We asked the current Housing Secretary to discuss these limitations, since these aren’t federal rules,” said Avilés, who is also a geographer. On February 26, several groups working to achieve a fair recovery sent him a letter requesting a meeting to discuss their concerns regarding the Re-Grow program guidelines.

However, Housing Secretary William Rodríguez told the CPI that he was unaware of the concerns presented by these groups. “There had been no approach. We found out yesterday through the press,” Rodríguez said.

“We’re open to meeting with them and with all the associations. In fact, we’re going to be meeting with the Secretary of Agriculture to get his input on what he’s been able to get from the meetings that I know he’s been having with different agriculture groups and sectors in Puerto Rico,” Rodríguez said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Regarding the possibility of amending the requirements of the Re-Grow program, the Housing chief said, “we’ll be sitting down with each of the groups that wants to meet with us to get those recommendations first-hand from them and be able to, if necessary, adjust the guidelines.”

One of the coalition’s demands is that the contract with the Trust be amended, but Rodríguez anticipated to the CPI that he does not contemplate doing so.

The program is supposed to target all small and medium scale farmers who meet the federal definition of a small family farm, with incomes below $350,000. The grant can range from $25,000 to $150,000.

Among the concerns expressed by the coalition of agricultural organizations is the problem of the digital gap   and the fact that the Re-Grow program application is only available online, even though many farms lack access to it, or their signal is poor in rural areas. They also said that the guidelines require formal academic or professional training, or administrative experience, aspects that the coalition said are not in line with the reality of Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector.

They also questioned the requirement to demand income tax return from recent years, which excludes farmers who have not filed it.

“Asking for the tax return as a requirement is leaving out older farmers. Most of them don’t file a tax return and have been in their profession for more than 30 years,” according to the document that the coalition presented last Monday. In addition to these claims, Avilés rejected that Puerto Rico’s small-scale farmers are evaluated using the same standards as those in the US mainland.

“A small-scale farmer in the United States is very different from Puerto Rico and they’re making me compete with farmers who have $150,000 in assets with farmers whose sales don’t reach $2,500 a year,” she charged.

“Farmers have been spending thousands of dollars asking people to fill out the proposal because they don’t have the time or the technological capacity. They pay someone $1,000 to fill it out or create the business plan if they need it as well, and some don’t even know what is being written,” he added.

The Trust defends its work

In an interview with the CPI, Bárbara Rivera, the director of the Re-Grow program within the Trust, said the entity’s role is to comply with the guidelines prepared by the DV and enable the execution of the project.

“These guidelines were designed taking into account HUD regulations, which provides the CDBG-DR funds, and in turn, the program and guidelines were designed in collaboration with the Department of Housing. These guidelines were provided to the Trust so that we could run the program,” Rivera said.

The official  acknowledges the limitations to access the internet that many small farmers have in rural areas of Puerto Rico’s mountainous region. However, she said that despite the pandemic, four in-person workshops have been offered in southeastern and central towns, and there are two more sessions scheduled for this month.

“We have put a lot of emphasis on our messages, including through social networks about every event in which we participate, saying that submitting a request to Re-Grow is free, that the program has people available to help clear up questions and that the application is pretty simple. We understand that there are people who require more support and we don’t rule out the possibility to visit or to send specific personnel to some areas that require it, to make those services available,” Rivera said.

Regarding the requirement of presenting evidence of professional or administrative training in agricultural work, Rivera said the program provides flexibility in terms of the documents that can be submitted as evidence of these skills. She stressed that the information that evidences the administrative training or experience is necessary, given that it is a federal program.

When asked about the requirement to file the income tax return and the fact that many farmers do not fill out this document and have a low-income level, Rivera was firm on that this document is essential to access recovery funds.

“This is a federal program. It has minimal conditions. If you’re claiming or stating that you have an established business for the purposes of this program, you provide us with this documentation, but you also need to provide financial evidence related to your business. That way, we can validate that this business has complied at the level required as a business and as an individual in making this income disclosure through its payroll,” she said.

The coalition’s proposal is that instead of requiring that funding applications for the program be only at the individual level,it could also allow requests from organizations, collectives or groups of farmers.

“If we’re truly focusing on food security, you can’t just focus on agribusiness. You have to focus on [supporting] production,” highlighted Avilés.

To this proposal, Rivera said the guidelines “include community-based organizations or an entity eligible to participate in the program. However, these support or community-based organizations must have a direct connection in food production because that’s what the guidelines establish.”

Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America

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