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Government shutdown still affecting Tampa Bay farmers, despite office re-openings

Hernando County farmers say they're losing out on federal funding because offices are closed.

A farmer's market in Brooksville in 2009.

The Hernando Grower's Association runs its own market in Brooksville now, and its founder Michael DeFelice said his colleagues have been feeling the impact of the federal government shutdown.

By Justin Trombly

Published January 24

Rebecca Krassnoski thought her hog farm would be bigger by now.

Last March, she applied for a Farm Service Agency loan to pay for a piece of land in Brooksville to expand her operation. But when she was ready to publish an environmental assessment for the project, which must allow 30 days for public comment, her local office had shuttered.

The agency is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and because of the federal government shutdown, its offices were closed. There was no one to review the assessment and approve the loan — and no telling when they'd be back.

Those offices re-opened on Thursday with limited offerings, but farmers like Krassnoski in Hernando County are still having problems. The agency isn't processing new loans, she said, and because hers had not been approved, her deal is dead.

"I've basically given up on the property," said Krassnoski, whose contract to buy the land expires on Jan. 28.

Michael DeFelice, who runs the Hernando Growers Association, a farmer co-op in that county, was accepted last year into a grant program from the agriculture department's Natural Resources Conservation Service. He planned to build a greenhouse-like structure for growing spring vegetables, then be reimbursed up to $10,000.

He had questions about the project, but when he called his local agency office in recent weeks, no one answered. That caused him to miss his Jan. 10 purchase deadline for the structure materials, so his spring crop will go unprotected.

DeFelice has had other problems, as have his fellow farmers.

The federal Agricultural Marketing Service has stopped updating average commodity prices. Farmers rely on those figures, DeFelice said, so they can decide when and for how much to sell specific products.

Now, he said, "it's exactly like going to the stock exchange with your eyes closed."

The department isn't receiving some data, either.

Laura Bennett, a livestock agent for the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, visits farms in Pasco, Hernando and Sumter counties to record soil, pasture and cattle conditions.

She gives that information to the department, which uses it for weekly reports that pinpoint regions that need resources. But no one has been at work to receive her data, she said, and those reports have stopped.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried told the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday that leaders should focus on people hindered by the shutdown, rather than the debate behind it.

DeFelice hopes for a shift, too.

"They need to look at the value of a small farmer," he said.

He said he feels like politicians haven't bothered to.

Contact Justin Trombly at Follow @JustinTrombly.

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