By Isaiah Chisolm
STORRS – The Storrs Farmers’ Market is a small place where Mansfield residents have a strong bond with their vendors.
While the smell of fresh produce fills the air right outside, the town hall the vendors are sure to show off their most precious prizes, sauces or elixirs to reel in customers.
It’s the relationship between the farmers and their buyers that is most important. That relationship has been threatened.
This past summer a Connecticut state budget stalemate eliminated the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), a program designed to help senior citizens eat healthier, to encourage the growth of local farmers markets and to invest in agriculture.
The SFMNP program helped bring fresh produce to lower income senior citizens via checks (vouchers/coupons). Farmers could then use these checks to get cash back.
The program benefited both farmers and seniors in Connecticut.
“There have been some customers who came to the market with just the coupons, so we had to send them home without any produce,” says Jackie Kulig, a vendor at the Storrs Farmers’ Market and worker at Willow Valley Farm in Willington, Connecticut.
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture issues these checks to seniors who do not exceed 185% of the state’s policy income guidelines; that is, the department issues the checks to seniors who make under a certain amount of money annually. Seniors must also be a part of other programs such as rebate programs that can test their eligibility.
In order for farmers to be eligible to accept these checks, they must participate in a certification meeting held by the state, sign a letter of agreement in compliance with state rules and regulations and submit a crop copy plan to the Department of Agriculture.
With the program on hold, it came as no surprise that farmers were being affected by the lack of income and were disappointed in the state and its agriculture department.
Dough Crane, another vendor at the farmers’ market and founder of Dragon’s Blood Elixir, has become well known for his homemade hot sauce. People would come in packs clamoring for a spoon to try his spicy concoctions and many often left with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces. Crane, however, does not smile when he speaks about how the program affected the farmers.
“They issued the checks to their constituents and then didn’t fund the program,” Crane says. “So all the people who had then figured these checks into their budget suddenly found they were valueless… The farmers did not get paid.”
The program services about 35,000 seniors in the state of Connecticut and issues six three dollar vouchers per recipient, which equals roughly 630,000 dollars annually.
The Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, has some members who share similar disappointment that the program was cut. Some members, however, remain optimistic.
Steve Jensen, a department spokesman, says he hopes the money is restored sooner rather than later to help both farmers and seniors.
“Every coupon that we print is used,” Jensen says. “We are disappointed in ourselves (the Department of Agriculture) that the money was cut, but we are only one of many agencies that had programs cut that we consider important to us and hopefully the money can be restored within a matter of weeks.”