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Leaders still pushing for disaster relief

WASHINGTON — One of the reasons Stephen Bailey started growing sweet potatoes on his farm near Vardaman was that commodity carried no guarantees of government assistance in case of a disaster. Bailey, who has been growing sweet potatoes since 1998, figured he would either make it or not on his own.

Thus, he represents a distinct minority in the state’s agriculture community — those not angry, shocked or perplexed that there has been no help coming from leaders in Washington after drought followed by heavy rains last year dealt the farming community its worst blow since the 1950s. Bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress, but they have stalled while the crop loss is still being calculated.

“I don’t have much faith in (federal disaster assistance) coming,” said Bailey, who gave his personal crop loss at between 50-60 percent. “I am disappointed. Our disaster is so significant. If there was ever a time lawmakers could help, it’s now.

“With sweet potatoes, I’m on my own. That’s what I like.”

Louis Guedon is not so understanding. Unlike Bailey, he is a 30-year veteran farmer, and he was fortunate enough to save his soybean crop in Jefferson County from the adverse weather. He said he feels for other farmers, particularly young producers, who are looking at having to shut down for reasons largely out of their control.

“But, we can give money to General Motors; we can bailout Wall Street,” Guedon said. “It makes me very angry.”

Almost before the torrential rains of last September and October had quit falling, appeals went out to Washington for help. On Oct. 23, Travis Satterfield of Benoit, president of the Stoneville-based Delta Council, wrote a letter to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) asking for quick federal assistance.

“We are familiar with the permanent disaster provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill, but would point out these provisions are not adaptable to the type of disaster, which has been experienced throughout Arkansas and Mississippi Delta regions, nor is it possible for this disaster assistance to reach the farm operator in time to provide the necessary transition into the 2010 crop season,” the letter said.

The letter speaks to the heart of the issue. The 2008 Farm Bill includes the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program, which offers a vehicle for producers to offset losses. However, that program does not pay until the end of the marketing season for the current crop, which is this October. In the mean time, producers are left wondering what they can plant, if at all, and what financing would be available.

The appeals got early responses. On Nov. 20, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced S.2810 in the U.S. Senate, followed Dec. 2 by the introduction of H.R.4177, co-sponsored by Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.), in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation includes $650 million to assist specialty crop producers, $150 million in assistance for livestock producers and $42 million for first handlers of cottonseed.

There has been no movement of either bill since their introduction.

However, the measures are not dead, and an effort to get the bills into law continue. Dr. Lester Spell Jr., Mississippi’s agriculture commissioner, is in Washington this week, and said before he left that he hoped to have an audience with Mississippi’s congressional delegation.

Lawmakers stood to hear from Spell and state agriculture leaders. Spell was in D.C. for the mid-year meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). State commissioners of agriculture met from Feb. 4-8 covering a number of topics. Agriculture leaders from both the House and the Senate were invited to the morning session.

NASDA has voiced its concerns over disaster assistance, calling the emergency loans an ineffective tool for most farmers. NASDA is urging a revised Farm Service Agency emergency loan program, similar to that provided to small businesses. It also would like to see the Federal Emergency Management Agency be given the authority to award timely grants, and eligibility extended to farmers for low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration and other agencies.

Still, there is hope for the bills in Congress. Cochran said in a statement to the Mississippi Business Journal before Spell’s arrival that he, “with the support of his co-sponsors, is actively looking for the best possible legislative vehicle for advancing the crop disaster assistance bill. We don’t have a specific vehicle identified yet, but we remain optimistic about our prospects.”

Regarding Spell’s visit to Washington, Cochran said his office “has not been contacted yet by (Spell’s) office, but we’re certainly open to meeting with him during his trip to Washington.”

In a Feb. 3 statement, Childers said, “The bill is a top priority for me, and I am doing everything I can to see that it comes to the floor as quickly as possible. If anything, I believe that our current economic conditions further emphasize how important it is that we provide our farmers with assistance.

“I am in the process of confirming a meeting with the commissioner at my office. A member of my staff may attend the association’s meeting. Regardless, I am communicating with the commissioner to stay apprised of all issues important to the agriculture industry. I also met with the Mississippi Farm Bureau (the morning of Feb. 3) to discuss the status of this important legislation.”

There doesn’t appear any help will be coming from Jackson, either. A check of measures before the agriculture committees in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature found no legislation pending that would offer disaster relief.

While all of this is happening – or not – the total crop loss is still being calculated. Dr. John Michael Riley, a Mississippi State University Extension Service economist who co-authored the state crop loss report, said it could be weeks before the final tally is available.

The current estimate for the state is a loss of between $450-$500 million. David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, said he fears after all the data are in that the loss could mushroom to $600 million.

Riley called $600 million “the high end” of estimates, but admitted that it is possible that the losses could run that high. He added that his feeling is that the numbers will be worse than estimates, and that the total loss would probably be at least in the $500-million range.


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