Why new USDA funding programs could have great impact on South Jersey

Asselta: Loans and grants could help balance playing field for food processors, create new jobs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement of new rules and programs intended to promote competition in the American economy — including making $200 million available to expand competition in meat processing and investing $25 million in workforce training — could have large impact in southern New Jersey.

USDA officials say the moves, aimed at fulfilling President Joe Biden’s Meat and Poultry Supply Chain Action Plan introduced in January, are intended to provide more support and resources to the American food supply chain, while promoting fair and competitive agricultural markets, preventing abuse of farmers by poultry processors and making prices fairer for farmers and American consumers.

Jane Asselta, the New Jersey state director for rural development, a mission area within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides loan and grant assistance to expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas, said the new rules and regulations could have great impact in the state.

“Today’s announcement from President Biden and Agriculture Secretary (Tom) Vilsack provides more support, resources and new rules that will strengthen the American food supply chain that benefits American producers, meat and poultry processors and, ultimately, consumers,” she said.

Asselta said among the resources that impacts New Jersey is the Meat & Poultry Intermediary Lending Program for interested lenders, who finance — or plan to finance — the startup, expansion or operation of processing meat and poultry.

The MPILP will provide grants of up to $15 million to nonprofit lenders, including private nonprofits, cooperatives, public agencies and tribal entities. These intermediaries will use this funding to establish a revolving loan fund to finance a variety of activities related to meat and poultry processing. For example, businesses may use the loans to acquire land, build or expand facilities and modernize equipment.

These funds will provide much-needed financing to independent meat and poultry processors to start up and expand operations. By introducing competition at this key bottleneck point in the supply chain, these investments will help raise earnings for farmers and lower prices for consumers.

Asselta said New Jersey’s meat and poultry producers can be characterized as mostly small-scale, with less than 2% of farms accounting for 75% of livestock revenues. The state of New Jersey does not currently offer a place for these producers to process their animals.

“This program can offset the expenses of transporting their animals out of state,” she said.

According to a Rutgers Agriculture Extension/New Jersey Department of Agriculture study, there are over 5,000 livestock and poultry producers in New Jersey who could work with intermediary lenders to finance purchasing and developing land, constructing a new facility or modernizing or expanding an existing facility, modernizing equipment or facilities to ensure food safety, and other uses.

The first intermediary lender application window, which opened Thursday, closes July 25, with award announcements in late September. Stakeholder webinars will be held June 9 and June 14. Details and application information for interested intermediaries can be found here.

The USDA also announced $25 million in investments for workforce training programs for meat and poultry processing workers with American Rescue Plan Act Section 1001 funding. The targeted funding through new and existing National Institute of Food and Agriculture programs is designed to create and expand upon good-paying jobs that can strengthen the meatpacking industry by attracting and retaining employees.

NIFA is leading two funding opportunities:

  • Extension Risk Management Education and Sustainable Agriculture Research Education programs:An investment of $5 million will be split equally between Extension Risk Management Education and Sustainable Agriculture Research Education programs. Work in these programs will support development of meat and poultry processing training and educational materials for place-based needs, particularly relevant to small- or medium-sized farmers and ranchers. Additionally, training local and/or regional meat and poultry workers presents a unique opportunity to address the demand from niche markets, like mobile processing units fulfilling market demand from fresh markets, on-site processing, farm-to-fork (restaurateurs), boutique grocers and others.
  • Community/Technical College Ag Workforce Training and Expanded Learning Opportunities: This Agricultural Workforce Training investment makes available $20 million to qualified community colleges to support meat and poultry processing workforce development programs. The AWT program helps develop a workforce ready for the field as well as industry jobs in the food and agricultural sectors. By creating new workforce training programs, or expanding, improving or renewing existing workforce training programs at community, junior and technical colleges/institutes, this program will expand job-based, experiential learning opportunities, acquisition of industry-accepted credentials and occupational competencies for students to enable a workforce for the 21st century.