As a bill that would provide flood relief funds for farmers currently makes its way through the South Carolina Senate, the window is beginning to close on farmers who say they need to know soon if there’ll be any money for spring planting.
“It is different from one farmer to the next based upon their condition and the financial picture of their farm after the impact of the floods,” South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers said Wednesday. For many farmers, the timing is “critical,” he said.
Weathers said he foresees the bill coming up for debate next week when the Senate returns from this week’s furlough.
“I am reaching out to the senators giving them additional information on the critical need out there, and will certainly ask them to support the bill on behalf of farmers,” he said.
The historic October floods submerged many fields in The T&D Region, damaging crops and preventing farmers from harvesting their produce.
State agriculture officials had wanted the monies available for March; they say May will be the absolute latest deadline for farmers if they are to benefit from flood relief funds for this year’s crop.
Weathers said he hopes the funds will be available by the summer. In the meantime, it will be crucial for farmers to work with their suppliers to get them to extend credit by allowing the flood relief money they will receive this summer to help pay the expenses incurred.
“The relationship a farmer has with their supplier is critical,” Weathers said. “This is a year that will challenge everybody involved if you are a farmer, if you are a supplier. These relationships are valuable so everyone who is extending that credit knows they can count on the farmer to live up their part of the arrangement.”
Legislation providing South Carolina farmers with a total of $40 million in state aid to help them hang on after last fall’s flooding was approved earlier this month by the Senate Finance Committee.
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. These funds are meant to provide a revenue bridge so farmers can plant and not be forced to literally sell the farm.
In order to qualify for the money, farmers must prove they sustained a 40 percent loss, and the funds can only be used for direct crop inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and other expenses related to planting.
While the Senate Finance Committee did pass the bill, it was not without concerns. Senators have had problems with creating a board to develop and oversee the application process. The committee amended the bill to put Weathers in charge to ensure no money goes to administration.
As it stands, an advisory board would be put in place to decide how the money is to be divided.
“We hope to expedite that money as soon as possible by giving farmers a short turnaround time to get their information,” Weathers said. “We will get all the resources, and are going to make this a top priority to process those applications and get the dollars out.”
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 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.
Weathers said the governor has threatened to veto the measure and it would require a two-thirds vote by both the Senate and House to override her veto.
“I am hoping she changes her mind,” he said.
Farmers were also hoping to receive about $60 million from the federal government, but it was later discovered the federal funds would not be available.
Weathers says he believes the failure of the federal dollars to come to the state was due to the failure of having the advocacy on the state level.
“I suspect perhaps politics got involved,” he said.
Last October’s torrential rains wiped out $330 million in South Carolina 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.