Raleigh, N.C. — Crops withered in fields show where the drought has dried up tens of thousands of farmers' dollars. One North Carolina congressman has been leading a push to get federal disaster relief for drought-affected farmers.
U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Lillington Democrat, sent a letter Sept. 25 requesting that President George W. Bush add disaster assistance payments to farmers to his supplemental budget requests for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A bipartisan group of 54 members of Congress signed the letter.
"I happen to believe that our agricultural opportunities here in food and fiber for America are as much a part of our national defense as is protecting our interests overseas," Etheridge said.
North Carolina farmers are already counting their losses. Peanut production is down about 20 percent from this time last year. Hay production has been cut nearly in half, and soybean production is down by more than a third.
"My guess is all over the Southeast, you'll see an awful lot of that," said Wake County farmer Jerry Jordan, pointing to the withered crops in his fields.
"I'm not sure the average North Carolinian that doesn't get out on the farm every day, like Jerry does, understands it," said Etheridge, who toured Jordan's farm Monday to see and hear firsthand about the effects of the drought.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 85 North Carolina counties disaster areas on Sept. 14, making farmers eligible for low-interest emergency loans. Etheridge wants farmers also to be able to get direct disaster assistance payments. Those would come as grants that do not have to be paid back.
"No. 1, it's the right thing to do," Etheridge said. "And No. 2, it will mean that some of these farmers who are on the edge will be able to continue to farm.
"You see what the the problem with loans is. If you don't have anything to bridge the gap now till next year, you will certainly need some grants to get over the hump."
The U.S. House Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the effects of the drought in North Carolina and other Southeastern states. Etheridge has been pushing Congress to offer federal disaster grants to farmers quickly.
"I guarantee you I'm going to stand in front of a truck if they don't," he said.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said his office has been working closely with Etheridge and other Congressional members to come up with plan that makes sure farmers get the help they need.
Jordan, who grows sweet potatoes, tobacco and soybeans, estimated the drought has cost him $112,000 in losses this year.
"We just hope we can maintain and keep going," he said. "It's just a hard, hard row to hoe."