Final crop loss estimate awaited

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Today, Dr. John Michael Riley, an agriculture economist at Mississippi State University, was pulling together figures for a final update on the crop losses suffered in the state from flooding fall rains. Riley had been waiting for farmers to get out of the fields to determine if the nearly $485-million, 30.3-percent crop loss estimate released in November would be too low or too high.

If that number holds or grows, it would be the worst year for the state’s agriculture community since the 1950s. To gauge the widespread destruction caused by torrential rains in September and October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 79 of Mississippi’s 82 counties a disaster area in November.

Lawmakers in Washington are working to get legislation passed that would offer 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).

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.”

Riley said he should have the final crop loss figures available for release Monday.

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