From the tractor
by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler
The September issue of the Ag Review was already at the printer when Hurricane Irene struck North Carolina on Aug. 27, so this is my first opportunity to comment on the agricultural damage the storm caused.
Certainly the agricultural community saw a great deal of damage from this storm. Shortly after the storm cleared the state, I flew over Eastern North Carolina with House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger surveying the damage.
A few days later I joined Gov. Bev Perdue, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on another aerial tour of the area. While we saw some infrastructure and equipment damage, it was crops that took a real beating.
Irene's path pretty much covered the largest crop production centers of the state. For example, 76 percent of the corn crop is grown east of Interstate 95; 73 percent of tobacco and 75 percent of all soybeans produced in the state are also grown in this area.
Early estimates put crop losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Yields for most major crops are expected to be down significantly from earlier predictions. Based on the latest USDA crop reports, the projected yield for flue-cured tobacco is expected to be down by 500 pounds per acre. The cotton yield is expected to drop by 106 pounds per acre and the corn yield, already forecast to be bad because of drought, is expected to be about 78 bushels an acre. That's a drop of nearly 30 bushels per acre below the 10-year average.
Crop losses, like farm profits, have a trickle-down effect in the community, and don't just stop with the producer. Many growers have employees to pay, equipment to pay for, supplies to buy, etc. And that is just the business-related expenses. You also have home and vehicle expenses, food purchases and more.
The aftermath of this storm will be felt for some time in these communities. Apart from the Farm Service Agency loans, it remains unclear what other kinds of government assistance may be available.
I called an emergency meeting of the Board of Agriculture following the tours. I wanted to hear from board members about concerns they were hearing from farmers in their areas, and I also wanted to talk about things we can do to help farmers recover from disasters now and in the future.
After discussions with the Board of Agriculture, I was asked to provide an update to two legislative committees.
Like me, members of this committee recognize that every time we have an agricultural disaster, we find ourselves in the same situation. Farmers have little help from the federal government. Low-interest loans don't provide adequate help, and the standing disaster relief program, known as SURE, is too slow.
We need to look more closely at policies and programs that may be able to provide help in the event of an agricultural disaster if some changes were made or additional language was added.
Here are a few ideas I presented to legislators:
-- Create a bridge loan program to be administered through the Agricultural Finance Authority. Under this program, the AFA would guarantee up to 20 percent of a loan amount for farmers in declared disaster counties who are in need of an immediate boost to their cash flow. Private lenders would make a decision regarding whether to make short-term loans, but the AFA would guarantee 20 percent of the amount. I do not anticipate that the 20 percent amounts would need to be spent, but rather it would just be money to set aside. I suggested $25 million would be a conservative amount to start this program.
-- Create agricultural disaster strike teams by leveraging resources within our department such as the N.C. Forest Service, Emergency Programs, Research Stations and our regional agronomists.
-- Allow the Board of Agriculture to recommend a state agricultural emergency declaration and that would then grant the Commissioner of Agriculture the ability to declare a state of agricultural emergency. With that declaration, the Commissioner would have the flexibility to temporarily suspend certain rules, which would allow farmers to more quickly and efficiently harvest crops immediately before and after a weather event and clean up debris.
-- Another recommendation was to further develop the N.C. Forest Service's Young Offenders Program. The Forest Service and the Department of Correction already cooperate on a program in Western North Carolina, but there is no counterpart in the Eastern. Under the program, assistance could be provided on public and private property in partnership with the strike teams I mentioned earlier.
-- Finally, I suggested we create a state emergency assistance fund for agriculture, to be modeled after other states, such as Missouri and Louisiana.
I hope we can gain traction with some of these ideas. We cannot afford to lose farms and farmers and their economic contributions to this state.
As I mentioned before, farm dollars trickle down in the economy, particularly in more rural communities. It is in all of our best interests to maintain a healthy agricultural economy.