Danny McAlhaney has been farming for 25 years.
Last year is one he won’t soon forget.
The Orangeburg County farmer lost most of his peanut crop and soybean crop in the historic October floods.
“It has been bad before with drought but you usually can make it up because one crop will do bad and usually the other one kind of holds its own,” McAlhaney said. “But when you lose everything, you don’t have anything to work with.”
McAlhaney joined more than 100 farmers and those with agricultural interests recently at the Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College Roquemore Auditorium to receive an update on state and federal aid opportunities for farmers ravaged by the floods. The event was sponsored by the Orangeburg and Calhoun County Farm Bureaus.
The October floods submerged many fields in The T&D Region, damaging crops and preventing farmers from harvesting their produce.
But some help may be on the way.
The S.C. House Ways and Means Committee Feb. 11 unanimously approved legislation that would allow farmers to receive up to $40 million in state aid to stay afloat. The entire House voted 95-6 to pass the bill Feb. 25. The legislation is now in the Senate.
The bill would allow farmers to apply for grants of up to $100,000 each. The grants could equal 20 percent of a farmer’s total loss.
Farmers have to prove they sustained a 40 percent loss, and the monies can only be used for direct crop inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and other expenses related to planting this year’s crops.
The $40 million in the proposed bill would come from state surpluses, so the money would not have to wait on the budget process.
Gov. Nikki Haley has said farmers shouldn’t be treated differently than other flood-impacted businesses in South Carolina. She has said crop insurance should suffice, noting she’s asked the federal government to expedite the insurance claims.
Agriculture officials, however, say even farmers who paid the most for insurance didn’t recoup enough money to cover what it cost them to plant the crops.
Farmers were also hoping to receive about $60 million from the federal government, but it was later discovered the federal monies may not be forthcoming.
South Carolina Farm Bureau President Harry Ott said state money is not guaranteed either.
“We are opening and knocking down every door we can find to get you as much assistance as we can,” Ott said.
If the bill passes the Senate, the board that would be created to evaluate applications and award grants would have 20 days to hold its first meeting.
“We would like to get this out of the Senate ahead of the budget,” Ott said, noting the Senate debate over roads could impact getting agriculture relief on the agenda.
Ott said he believes Haley will sign the bill. If not, there will be enough votes to override the veto, he said.
“I believe if we get it to a vote, we win,” Ott said, encouraging those in attendance to reach out to their senators.
Farmers and agriculture officials are optimistic the monies will be forthcoming.
“It will be a long process,” McAlhaney said. “Any time you deal with the government, don’t expect it to be tomorrow. It may be at the end of the year before we get some of it, I imagine.”
McAlhaney said he thinks he can get by with spring planting despite a delay in receiving the money.
“If we know we got it coming, I think we will start,” he said. “We are restructuring a lot of debt. We are borrowing Peter to pay Paul. We owe suppliers so we are going to the bank to pay our suppliers and the bank will stretch us out 10 to 20 years to pay a little bit every year.”
“Hopefully, this money that we got coming in will relieve some of that,” McAlhaney said. “But we are going to have to sell some equipment because the way commodity prices are now, we are barely able to hold on, much less pay back debt.”
Orangeburg County Clemson Extension Agent Jonathan Croft said McAlhaney’s story is true across the county.
“Most of them don’t know what they are going to do right now,” Croft said. “A lot of them are going to plant the same thing they have been planting, about the same acres. There probably will be a pretty big reduction on some farms in cotton.”
Croft said those in the sales business are seeing inventory grow as many farmers are not purchasing seed.
“If things dry off, we can start planting corn in a few weeks,” he said, noting farmers are grateful for whatever assistance they can receive. “Hopefully that money will get their eventually. April won’t be too late. The sooner the better, but we will be glad to get it when we get it.”
Ott said the money would ideally be available in March, when corn planting begins, with the hope that supply stores are willing to extend short-term credit to farmers.
“The quicker we can get this bill signed and funded, the quicker we can get applications in and make some payments so that farmers have some money to put in their operations,” Ott said. “If we don’t get the crops planted in March, April and May, our window of opportunity closes again until next year. It is very important we get a timely response on the Senate side to get up up and running.”
South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers told farmers they need to befriend the right person.
“Last fall the person you needed to have the best relationship with was your crop insurance agent. Now the person you have to have the best relationship with is your banker to tell you what you quality for and to put it in your operating plan for 2016,” Weathers said.
Last October’s torrential rains wiped out $330 million in S.C. crops at harvest time. Farmers lost an additional $45 million because they couldn’t plant winter crops in bogs, according to the state Department of Agriculture. The figures don’t include losses from last year’s spring freeze and summer drought.
Farmers essentially lost their entire inventory after incurring a year’s worth of expenses, leaving many unable to pay operating loans that were due Dec. 31. State officials say 30 percent of farm loans through the Farm Service Agency in South Carolina are already delinquent.