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New Mexico lawmakers question USDA funding move

At Not Forgotten Outreach in Taos, military veterans learn about agriculture and work on a farm. (Courtesy Matt Cogorno)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation has joined 35 other lawmakers in a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, questioning why the agency directed federal money away from a program aimed at helping military veterans and people of color in agriculture.

The Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, or the 2501 program, was created in 1990.

But the USDA redirected about $4 million from the program’s Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations to a new initiative, a decision the lawmakers said was made without consulting “stakeholders and the communities of color and veterans that they serve.”

“For many producers, the impacts of this current crisis are compounded by years of depressed prices, volatile markets, and historic levels of farm debt,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of our nation’s most underserved farmers who often have the fewest resources to draw on and who most need our support in these challenging times.”

Don Peters, executive director of Not Forgotten Outreach, said he was surprised to see program funds reduced. The organization received about $200,000 from the 2501 program last year to teach military veterans about agriculture on a 28-acre farm in Taos. The maximum amount per year an organization can receive from the grant is now $150,000, down from $250,000 last year.

“It’s one of the best grants I’ve worked with,” Peters said. “We don’t have to spend money and then get reimbursed like with some other grants, and for a small organization like ours, that makes a difference.”

The grant pays stipends for 20 VetCorps members each year, along with supplies, said program director Matt Cogorno.

“Our veterans and military family members really build community here,” Cogorno said. “We work with animals and teach about things like row crops, hydroponics and soil. It’s dirt therapy, getting your hands dirty and seeing things grow. We also have behavioral therapy skill sessions to help our veterans learn techniques to handle stress and adapt to their changing environment.”

The veteran farmers have donated produce to Taos schools and food banks during the pandemic.

USDA redirected some of the 2501 money to a new program under the Centers of Community Prosperity initiative. In the letter, lawmakers question why USDA created a separate program.

Past 2501 grants have benefited groups like the New Mexico Acequia Association and the Desert Forge Foundation.

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