Southern lawmakers seek emergency aid for farmers

AP News
Posted: Dec 14, 2009 9:32 AM

Some Southern lawmakers are seeking billions of dollars in emergency aid for farmers after recent natural disaster declarations in at least 20 states.

A farm disaster program authorized by Congress last year still isn't fully in place, and even if it was, some lawmakers say its design could keep many farmers with losses this year waiting for help until January 2011. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's disaster declarations allow farmers affected by weather ranging from hail to volcanic emissions to seek low-interest loans or other assistance, but some debt-laden farmers say the last thing they need is another loan.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, early season drought and late-season rains compounded the losses many growers suffered due to the 2008 hurricanes. Lawmakers from Mississippi and Arkansas are helping lead a push for at least $2.1 billion in emergency farm aid and hope to gain approval by year's end from a Congress that has been focused on other spending packages and the health care debate.

"I believe we have a good argument for providing direct payments to farmers whose crops have been ruined this year by floods, drought and other disaster conditions," said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

Ted McDermott is grateful for the effort, but questions whether it will help him much. The northeast Louisiana sweet potato grower said he filed for bankruptcy after last year's storms left him with rotten potatoes, fields too wet to harvest and loans he couldn't pay off. He managed to plant 100 acres this year but the seemingly unrelenting rains in September and October left him with more rotted potatoes and the prospect of having to leave the state to find work.

"I think my business is done," said the 41-year-old from Oak Grove, who is still waiting for money from a grant and loan program the state set up with federal money after hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

"I needed help in the spring of 2009, coming out of my '08 losses, and I think at this point, I'm too far in the hole to come out of it. Unless they want to write a lot of my debt off," McDermott said, "and I doubt seriously they'll want to do that."

Over the past decade, Congress has approved multiple emergency aid packages for farmers and ranchers hurt by bad weather. But farm-state lawmakers often faced a hard sell with colleagues worried about the cost and their own constituents' needs. And in some cases, farmers still had to wait a year or more for help.

Last year, members of North Dakota's congressional delegation helped lead an effort to add a farm disaster program to the latest multiyear version of the federal farm bill. Lawmakers agreed to limit the cost of the program in part by basing aid on farmers' total income.

That means a farmer who lost a lot of cotton, which is expensive to produce, but made money on corn or soybeans harvested earlier might not get any aid. Southern farmers, who often plant multiple crops, say the program could end up favoring one-crop farms that are more often seen in the Midwest.

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Past emergency aid has often been based on the amount of a crop lost. Gary Adams, chief economist for the National Cotton Council, said that type of direct assistance will likely still be needed even after the farm disaster program is set up.

"I think we have a good idea of what it will and won't provide," Adams said of the new farm disaster program, "and the financial hole that's left for farmers is fairly significant."

In Kelsey McKoin's case, a federal bailout could make the difference in getting financing to plant next year. The 57-year-old lost all the sweet potatoes on his farm, near Bonita in north Louisiana, last year and expects big losses again this year. He said his crop insurance didn't provide help.

A federal loan he got last year did, "but that has to be repaid. They made me sign a piece of paper saying they'd come get my house if I didn't pay it," he said. "It's hard to do it _ you can't control the weather or government programs."