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Crop losses lowered, but still staggering

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — The final numbers are in on the crop losses suffered in Mississippi due to drought during the summer and torrential rains in the fall, and they have come in lower than earlier projections. However, the figures are still staggering.

According to final estimates tallied by Mississippi State University agriculture economists Dr. John Anderson and Dr. John Michael Riley, Mississippi farmers saw a total crop loss of $443.849 million, or 27.7 percent, during 2009.

The last estimate was $485 million, or 30.3-percent. However, farmers were afforded generally fair weather during the month of November, and were able to get at least some of their devastated crop out of the field. Still, the loss represents the worst year seen by the state’s agriculture community since the 1950s.

To gauge the widespread destruction, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 79 of Mississippi’s 82 counties a disaster area in November. And just last week, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced the availability of federal economic injury disaster loans to small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and most private non-profit organizations of all sizes located in entire State of Mississippi as a result of the massive crop losses.

Lawmakers in Washington are working to get legislation passed that would offer further relief to the state’s farmers, and time is an issue. The Farm Bill provides disaster assistance to producers, but does not pay off until the end of the crop marketing year, which is Oct. 2010. State and national leaders say that would be too late for farmers. They must have immediate relief or many producers will be forced to park their tractors for good.

On Dec. 2, H.R.4177, co-sponsored by Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.), was introduced, which aims to provide timely disaster assistance to producers. It would also offer aid to livestock producers.

“In North Mississippi, both farmers and local economies have suffered from this season’s unprecedented rainfall,” said Childers. “Significant assistance currently available through the USDA is still not enough to make up for the incredible crop losses local producers have experienced. While we await the full implementation of Farm Bill assistance provisions, this important legislation will help local economies stay afloat by providing farmers with the resources they need to get back on their feet.”

The House bill is the second piece of disaster relief legislation introduced in Congress by Mississippi lawmakers. On Nov. 20, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced S.2810, a bill similar to the House’s proposed legislation.

“Sweet potatoes, grain sorghum, soybeans and cotton harvests have been compromised to an extent that the financial survival of many producers is uncertain,” said Cochran, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Existing Department of Agriculture disaster aid programs cannot provide the near-term help needed by growers. The Direct Payment mechanism, which has been used to provide assistance numerous times, is the only way for the Department of Agriculture to provide timely assistance.”

Both H.R.4177 and S.2810 include $650 million to assist specialty crop producers, $150 million in assistance for livestock producers and $42 million to aid first handlers of cottonseed. This aid would be in addition to the aforementioned direct payments provided by the Farm Bill’s Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE).

Childers praised Cochran for introducing S.2810, and Cochran said he is watching the House’s efforts, too.

“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,” Cochran said. “These payments would provide more timely help to farmers who cannot wait for the Department of Agriculture to finish putting its permanent disaster assistance program in place. I am pleased a companion bill has been introduced in the House, and I look forward to working on a cooperative basis to move our crop disaster assistance legislation through Congress this year.”

Mississippi Agriculture told the Mississippi Business Journal that the disaster was the worst he had seen. “Staggering losses,” he said, “If something isn’t done, I’m afraid the state stands to lose some mighty good farmers.”

David Cochran is one of those at risk. An Avon cotton producer, he said the 30-plus inches of rain he received in September and October “cost us anywhere from 50-60 percent of our anticipated yield. We felt like we had one of the better cotton crops than we’ve had in recent years, but a lot of the cotton either hardlocked and fell out or just rotted.”

He said this year has been unusually devastating, and that immediate disaster assistance such as introduced in the Senate and House would help him meet his financial obligations.

Cochran said his ginning operation also was hurt because of the lost seed. “We gin for the seed, and where we normally get 700-800 pounds of seed per bale, we’re only seeing 550-600 pounds.”


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