Throughout the Mid-South, parts of Alabama, Georgia and even upwards of the Eastern seaboard, farmers watched helplessly as excessive rainfall and cloudy days in September and October delayed harvest and reduced crop yields and quality.
Farmers, consultants, industry leaders and agricultural organizations knew that the clock was ticking. It was time to join forces on Capitol Hill to seek assistance from Congress in the face of the 2009 crop disaster, and, in some cases, back-to-back disasters. Many individuals and groups traveled to D.C. to explain the dire situation and try to work out a solution that could be executed in a timely manner.
Collective Voice Expresses Concerns
In November, Jess Barr, Louisiana Cotton and Grain Association executive director; Travis Satterfield, Delta Council president; Chip Morgan, Delta Council executive vice president; and Don Alexander, Agricultural Council of Arkansas executive vice president along with several farmers and commodity lobbyists met with key congressmen, senators and their aides to “get the ball rolling” on some disaster assistance. Alexander pointed out that a collective approach gives all of the delegations a better understanding of the severity of the disaster.
“We generally had a good reception from the Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi delegations,” Barr says. “They were sympathetic to our need and will try to provide some help. However, they were quick to point out that this will be an uphill battle against a busy schedule that includes health care, climate change and other issues. This agricultural disaster was not on the calendar.”
But, calendar or no calendar, the disaster is real, time is short and hard, cold cash – not another loan – is what farmers need immediately.
During these early November meetings with the House and Senate Agricultural Committee staff (majority and minority), four assistance options were discussed: Modifications to the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments (SURE) program, traditional disaster assistance, increasing the limit for low-interest loans and supplemental direct payment.
According to the USDA, “The 2008 Farm Bill created a permanent disaster program (SURE) to replace the ‘ad hoc’ disaster programs of past years. This is a revenue-based program that uses a formula to compare the expected revenue to actual revenue for the entire farming operation.”
Traditional disaster assistance made payments based on individual crop losses or insurance units. Barr notes that this was the second choice of assistance and already contains provisions for non-program crops.
“The cons of this option are that the program would be administered by local FSA offices that are already severely overworked, sign-up would likely not be until late summer or early fall with payments coming even later, and many of our producers have never really benefitted from this type program due to its interaction with crop insurance,” he adds.
As for increasing the limit for low-interest loans, Barr says, “Producers in disaster-declared counties/parishes automatically become eligible for low-interest loans. The current loan ceiling is $100,000.
“As a result of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, many of the producers in Louisiana, Arkansas and Missis-sippi have already hit this ceiling,” he explains. “The limit needs to be at doubled at least and potentially raised even higher. This is particularly important for specialty crop farmers.”
Supplemental Direct Payment
The fourth option, supplemental direct payment, appears to be the best option, Barr adds.
Morgan notes that the supplemental direct payment would not be exclusively a direct payment disaster assistance program where payments are only allocated to program crops.
“There is a precedent for this type of direct payment,” he says. “It has been implemented in the past to confront disasters. It is the most timely way to get money out to the farmers and requires no county office work because everyone knows what their eligible direct payments are.”
The payments would go to farmers and farms in counties/parishes that have been declared disasters by the Secretary of Agriculture.
“Our take-home message is that we would like for farmers with program crops to qualify for an additional direct payment and for farmers who produce non-program crops to receive ad hoc disaster assistance, too,” Morgan says.
Appropriating The Money
Another important meeting attended by Morgan, Barr and Alexander was with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) who sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. More than likely, funding for disaster assistance will be attached to an appropriations bill.
“Traditionally,” Morgan says, “agricultural disasters have been covered under the agricultural appropriations bill, which has already gone to the President. That means disaster funding would have to be put under another appropriations bill, which is certainly not impossible, but it’s not the normal way we do business.
“Because Sen. Pryor is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he will certainly be a key player. If
disaster provisions are placed on another appropriations bill, he will be in a pivotal position to help us.”
Although securing disaster funding prior to production loans being made in 2010 is a formidable task, it’s not an impossible one. Industry leaders are putting on a full-court press to help make this happen. Back home, farmers are encouraged to get their crops out and report their losses as quickly as possible. And, by all means, become more politically aggressive in asking for help and taking the initiative to contact their senators and representatives directly. Every phone call, letter and email can make a difference.
Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org.