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Jul 21, 2022

Did you know that the Farm Service Agency offers financial assistance to remove and replant vines infected with Red Blotch? Jeff Sledd, County Executive Director at the San Luis Obispo County Farm Service Agency explains how the Tree Assistance Program (TAP) offers commercial farmers aid with multiple qualifying disasters including natural occurrences like freezing or floods, and diseases including Pierces Disease and Red Blotch.

The Farm Service Agency is a national program with county-level agencies for assistance. It is important for farmers to connect with their local agency to remain aware of current relief programs and to request funding for new issues.

Make sure to listen to the end. If you received an insurance payment in 2020, 2021, or 2022 for COVID or drought, you may be eligible for the Emergency Relief Program.


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Craig Macmillan  0:00 

And with me today is Jeff Sledd, who is the county executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Service Agency, which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture. And today we're going to talk about the tree Assistance Program plus couple of other things. Hey, thanks for  being on the podcast, Jeff.


Jeff Sledd  0:14 

Hey, I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to join you, Craig. Thank you.


Craig Macmillan  0:18 

For those who may not be familiar with the organization, what exactly is the Farm Service Agency?


Jeff Sledd  0:23 

Sure, good question. So the Farm Service Agency is a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. We are tasked specifically to administer the Farm Bill, which is a package of legislation that Congress puts out around every five or so years, that has to do with everything ag related in the US. And the Farm Service Agency specifically administers the subsidy and disaster programs that are designed to aid farmers with financial assistance to help them feed America.


Craig Macmillan  0:59 

And speaking of disasters, there is a program called the Tree Assistance Program that is to help growers of tree things specifically, in the face of various kinds of losses. Can you tell us a little bit about the program just in general and who's eligible?


Jeff Sledd  1:15 

So yes, it's called the Tree Assistance Program. Because we're a federal agency. We abbreviate everything, so if you call in and ask about it, you'll probably hear us call it TAP  tree Assistance Program. It's a bit of a misnomer because it is for trees, bushes and vines, anything that is grown, that is part of a commercial farming operation, this program would cover those. Again, like I said, as long as it's for commercial consumption or use. The Tree Assistance Program specifically, is a cost share program that helps farmers and ranchers and orchardists remove and replant dead or diseased trees, bushes, and vines that are dead or diseased because of a qualifying condition for the program. Most of those conditions are natural occurrences weather related disasters but for grape growers, specifically in San Luis Obispo County, the plant disease Red Blotch is sort of how this program is used most. So for orchardists, who have Red Blotch in their vineyards to a point where you know, it's beginning to curtail their production. This program helps cost share the price of removing those vines, prepping the ground, and then replanting new vines.


Craig Macmillan  2:40 

Are there other diseases or issues that like maybe statewide that also would be covered for winegrapes by TAP.


Jeff Sledd  2:46 

Most other probably parts of the state and the nation really use the tree assistance program more for natural disasters like floods and freezes and things like that. Well, we don't have unfortunately, we don't have very many floods, don't have a lot of rain. But probably it could be used for things like fire if a fire came through and burn up an orchard. But it's typically used more for like freezes and things like that.


Craig Macmillan  3:16 

I had a memory that maybe Pierce's Disease was also covered by the program and Leaf Roll virus had been added a couple of years ago is that true?


Jeff Sledd  3:23 

Leaf roll virus has been added, a Pierce's Disease, although I don't know how prevalent that is in San Luis Obispo County, I can tell you, we haven't helped any vineyards that have Pierce's Disease, but yes, it would, it could qualify and there are other diseases that may not be approved at this point. But if you one of your listeners is being affected by a disease that we haven't mentioned, they can certainly contact us and we can go through the process of potentially having that specific disease added as a qualifying condition.


Craig Macmillan  4:00 

I think this is an important point is that, you know, our listenership is national now. And there may be things that are either happening, like Pierce's Disease, for instance, or something like that, where they're dealing with it, but they're not getting the information that oh, this qualifies. Or, you know, we got to face facts that like we live in a ever changing environment. And there may be things that come down the pike in the future that may be devastating and may may be potentially could qualify, but of course, don't know that they can bring that. Please bring your issues and we'll look into it and we'll see if it qualifies or not. Maybe it doesn't maybe it does, but it's part of the grower community has to say hey, these are things that are that are impacting us. And to come to say, hey, we need, we'd like some help. What do you think?


Jeff Sledd  4:45 

Yeah, that's a good point. Craig. So I'm talking specifically about San Luis Obispo County here in California. However, this program is available nationwide, any county in the nation has a Farm Service Agency Office. That county may specifically, have other diseases that are already approved qualifying losses, or conditions that are prevalent in that area. Red Blotch just happens to be very prevalent in our area. So it's kind of our main concern, but other counties across the nation, if your listeners are listening to this, and they're experiencing something that may be more localized to them, they should definitely contact their Farm Service Agency office to see what help is available because it certainly could be out there.


Craig Macmillan  5:34 

What is the application process like to to get some assistance to TAP? What kind of documentation is required, and specifically, Red Blotch is what you've been working with, so let's talk about how that would work.


Jeff Sledd  5:46 

Well, so we're a federal agency. So as you can imagine, there's a significant amount of paperwork involved, none of it is... None of it's too difficult. And all of it, we are more than willing to help you work, work with you to get to get all that paperwork done. So the first part would be an app, a TAP application, a tree Assistance Program application, which is basically just some general information of what disaster are you experiencing. When did that disaster start? When was it apparent to you, because those two aren't necessarily the same, right?


Craig Macmillan  6:26 

That's true.


Jeff Sledd  6:27 

When it started when it was apparent to you and you know, how many acres and how many trees, bushes or vines are affected in that acreage. So that's the TAP application or the tree Assistance Program application. Then we also have a number of other eligibility documents, that would be required for anybody applying for any kind of benefit through our agency. And, you know, again, any FSA office in the nation will help you process and complete those documents. Yeah, so you're gonna fill out the tree Assistance Program application, as part of that, if you have never participated with any Farm Service Agency programs, we are going to need to identify your ground. So to do that, we're going to need either the recorded grant deed for the acreage that your grapes are on or if it is, if it does happen to be a rented vineyard, vineyard that you're leasing, then you'd have to provide the signed executed current lease that shows the legal description of the land, so we can find that land in our mapping system. So we're going to need your APN numbers or, you know, section township range, something like that, or an address that shows, kind of gives us legal description of that land, so we can identify your land and attach you to it in our system. Then, as a part of that, where you know, we're gonna have to add you into our system. So there's some just some general forms that get your contact information, who you are, your address, contact, all that kind of stuff. And then any producers that apply for benefits with the USDA or with the Farm Service Agency, there is an eligibility requirement that has to do with income under the current Farm Bill to receive benefits, you have to be able to certify that for the the current year that we are in. So if you're applying for a 2022 program that for the year 2022, you will make equal to or less than $900,000 in your adjusted gross income. No one's filed their 2022 taxes yet, the way we determine that is we send a form to the IRS where you give them permission to take a look back, they're going to skip the immediate last year, and then look at the three years before that. So for 2022, we're going to skip 2021 and look back at 2020, 2019 and 2018. And if you as an individual or an entity, if it's a general partnership, or a corporation that is applying for the benefits, if that partnership or entity or individual can qualify that they made the equal to or less than $900,000 for those three review years, then you would be considered eligible or compliant with that average Adjusted Gross Income certification for the program here that you're applying for. It sounds like a complex form, but it's really a check in a box. It's pretty simple. And most producers if if you're, you know at the cusp, that you're not quite sure if you would exceed or you know, be above that threshold, your CPA or tax attorney certainly would be able to help you with that. But it's a pretty simple form. So there's that. Then there's some other forms that are environmental compliance, you have to promise that you're going to take care arable land in such a way that causes it not to erode away and that sort of thing, a lot of paperwork, but it's all basic, pretty simple paperwork and nothing that we're not going to help you walk through.


Craig Macmillan  10:11 

So if we go through this, we have a successful application, how much assistance can a grower receive?


Jeff Sledd  10:16 

the program does have a payment limitation, right for the 2018 Farm Bill, the payment does cap at $125,000 as the most benefit you could receive through the Tree Assistance Program.


Craig Macmillan  10:34 

And you had indicated earlier when we're talking about Red Blotch assistance, and things that can include the removal of the vines, treatment of the land, or management of the land, in some fashion, the purchase of the new plant stock and the planting of the new plants, is that right?


Jeff Sledd  10:48 

It does. And so we call those different practices that can be approved, right, so the first one would be the removal of the dead and dying vines. The program specifically says that the vine has to be dead to receive assistance. However, with plant diseases, that's a little bit different, it might still technically be alive. But for financial purposes because of the disease, it financially isn't worth continuing growing this volume, because it's not producing, it won't pay for itself. And so if that's the case, we consider that vine dead, even though it technically is still alive. We do pay for removal of the dead vines, or pay a portion of the cost of removal of the dead vines, and then what we call site prep, re leveling the land, that kind of thing, anything that would need to be done to prep the ground to receive the new trees. And then the new trees themselves, we pay for vines here in California, specifically for vines we pay it's $4 a vine or 65% of your actual cost of those vines. You turn in the receipts for what you actually paid, but we take a look and compare that to our $4 per vine, maximum limit. And then we're gonna pay you the lesser of the two, right either 65% of your actual costs or the $4 per vine. In some cases, we could also pay if the vines, really doesn't work for Red Blotch, for but for other diseases or other disasters, there might be vines that don't necessarily need to be ripped out and removed, but do need significant intervention or rehabilitation. In those cases we would pay for the rehabilitation or a portion of the rehabilitation of those vines, rather than the removal.


Craig Macmillan  12:49 

And are there growers in San Luis Obispo County that are taken up the program and being part of it?


Jeff Sledd  12:54 

This program is like I said a national program that any producer of tree, bush or vine producer across the nation can use but statistically San Luis Obispo County has used the program more than any other county in the nation.


Craig Macmillan  13:11 



Jeff Sledd  13:12 



Craig Macmillan  13:12 

That's interesting.


Jeff Sledd  13:14 

Specifically because of the prevalence of of Red Blotch in our area. So that's why we felt like it was important to contact you guys and get the word out for any grape growers that may not be aware this programs out there to help them if they're struggling with the costs and what to do about Red Blotch in their vineyard.


Craig Macmillan  13:36 

You know, that's fantastic and really happy to hear that. I'm really happy to hear that people are coming for help. We've been talking specifically about the tree assistance program, but are there other FSA programs that are available or might be benefit to wine grape growers that you'd recommend?


Jeff Sledd  13:48 

There are well, and very specifically, if you're a wine grape grower in the nation, it's possible if you have crop insurance, federally subsidized crop insurance and you got a an indemnity payment in program year 2020 or 2021. We right now have a program called ERP which stands for Emergency Relief Program. And it has to do with the COVID-19 disaster and the drought disaster that California has in in other parts of the nation. So if you are a grape grower and you received crop insurance indemnities in either 20 or 21, you should have received in the mail already from the Farm Service Agency, an application for the ERP or Emergency Relief Program. And what we're finding is because a lot of grape growers aren't used to dealing with the Farm Service Agency that are kind of throwing those aside because they don't know what it is. And you're essentially throwing away your free money if you do that. So if you did get one of those applications, you need to contact your farm service agents immediately and we'll help you complete the process for that. Because that program will pay you 75% right now, of the indemnity that you already received, we'll pay you that, again, if the indemnities that you received were for qualifying losses under the ERP program. So if you got one of those applications from the Farm Service Agency and don't know what it is, definitely have your your listeners should contact their FSA office in their county. If you did get an indemnity, you got an insurance payment in program year 2020, or 2021, or 2022, as well and didn't get an application, then you should contact your FSA office because we can print it out for you and get it to you. In case it you know, it went to the wrong address or something along those lines. Definitely, that's one we have, like the Tree Assistance Program. We also have, we have other disaster related programs that kind of come and go depending on what the disasters in a certain county or certain parts of the country are. And so definitely, if you are a grape grower, and you have had some kind of natural disaster, or a fire or a flood or freeze or something along those lines, you should definitely reach out to your Farm Service Agency.


Craig Macmillan  16:25 

And when I was reading a little bit about the FSA, and if I understood correctly, the way FSA was was designed is meant to be really an interface between the farmer community and the USDA, a spot where people can connect directly to their government, basically, there's grower direction in this, there's a committee of farmers that are involved.


Jeff Sledd  16:46 

Yeah, you've done your you've done your homework Craig, good job. So one of the things about the Farm Service Agency that we really pride ourselves in is we are really the last federal agency at a county level that is still directed or run by an elected Board of farmers in our case. So we do have a we call it the county committee, or again, we abbreviate everything, so we call them the COC. But they're a board of elected farmers that they are tasked with reviewing all of these applications that come in and approving or denying them based on procedures. So as the county executive director, I actually report directly to that board, the county committee, and it's kind of my job to help the committee know what the rules and regulations are to know what they what authority they have and don't have, and that sort of thing. And actually, this year, in our county, we have one of our board positions coming available. And we would love actually to have a grape grower on our board. Right now, we don't have a grape grower. We have other producers, you know, other types of farmers, but we would certainly love to have a grape grower. So if you are interested, you have to live in a certain part of the county because the county is cut into different we call them local administrative areas. And so you have to live in the right area of the county and farm in the right area of the county to run. If any of your listeners in San Luis Obispo County are interested, they certainly should reach out to me and because we definitely for 2023 will be holding an election at the end of this year for a seat on that board that is a three year term. That's certainly a way that a farmer or a vineyardist could get involved in the local government of their community that has a direct impact on ag in our community and has influence you know, statewide and even all the way up to the national level and what kind of programs are implemented for farmers here at the local level.


Craig Macmillan  19:05 

Yeah, and that may be true at the time of this recording of this particular podcast. But that's in San Luis Obispo County, but it's also going to be true all the way into the future across the nation,


Jeff Sledd  19:15 

Across the nation absolutely.


Craig Macmillan  19:16 

If you, you know, feel like you can have an influence and like to help your fellow growers, which is what this is about. Getting involved is always a great idea if you're really passionate about trying to make things better for yourself and for your neighbors. And I think this is a great example of how growers can have an impact beyond the fence line, right and can have a positive influence on their community. So I think it's fantastic, great way of organizing the organization. It sounds like a really great way of getting involved with these various things.


Jeff Sledd  19:45 

It's a great way to get involved that doesn't require too much time. You know, we're going to ask a couple hours a month from you, usually one day a month for a couple of hours. So it's a great way to get involved ad to assist, and serve the ag community that doesn't require just, you know, tons and tons of time and input.


Craig Macmillan  20:08 

So related to TAP or anything else related to the FSA, what is one thing you would recommend to our listeners?


Jeff Sledd  20:15 

Sure. So assuming that I'm talking really mostly to grape growers, right, in California, and really across the state, I would recommend, get to know your Farm Service Agency, at least know where that agency is located, how to contact that agency, because if you're not in need of the Tree Assistance Program, right now, we, all the time have ad hoc programs that just kind of come down from Congress to address specific problems that you may or may not have heard in the news about. We have assistance to give away to farmers to producers, ag producers in the nation. And if you don't know about it, you don't get your piece of the pie. So I would say my one one piece of advice is even if you don't have Red Blotch like like what we're talking about today, find out where your Farm Service Agency is, and get involved or get connected to them so that we're aware of you and you're aware of us. So when you do have some need for us, or we have some program that fits what you do, you're in our data bank so we can reach out to you and you know, have that beneficial relationship with one another.


Craig Macmillan  21:25 

And so in this particular case, since Obispo County, how do people find you? Where are you located? How do they reach out to you, Jeff?


Jeff Sledd  21:32 

In San Luis Obispo County, our office is in Templeton the heart of wine country right here, right next door to Paso Robles. So you can certainly come to our office, but specifically I would tell your producers to go to, FARMERS, That's the USDA's public facing page. And in that you can get to know really every program we have but there's also on there very easy to find a find your local FSA office and it'll drill down and it'll get you right to the office in your county. Whichever county that is farmers here in San Luis Obispo County can contact me either through or I can give you my email address. Absolutely, welcome to reach out to us that way as well.


Craig Macmillan  22:25 

I want to thank our guest, Jeff Sledd County Executive Director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Service Agency, part of the United States Department of Agriculture. Jeff, it has really been a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.


Jeff Sledd  22:37 

Craig, I appreciate the opportunity.


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