NC agriculture chief: 'We lost payday this year'
Posted September 13, 2011
Updated September 15, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina farms suffered "terrible losses" in the wake of Hurricane Irene, and the state needs to take short- and long-term steps to help farmers, who face "totally inadequate" federal disaster response, the state's agriculture chief says.
"We lost payday in agriculture this year," State Agriculture Steve Troxler declared to lawmakers on the House Agriculture Committee Tuesday morning.
Crop losses accounted for $320 million of the more than $400 million in estimated damage from Irene in North Carolina. That compounds damage already done by drought and the tornadoes that struck in April, Troxler said.
The long-lasting, slow-moving hurricane, which struck on Aug. 27, dumped over a foot of rain and blew hurricane-force winds for over 18 hours in some places. The storm flooded farmlands, shredded crops where they stood in the fields, ripped apart farm buildings and left standing water that rotted crops.
"Friends in eastern North Carolina tell me it smells like a garbage dumpster that you have throw in rotten vegetables from all the rotting crops in the fields," Troxler said.
Irene's damage lowered statewide crop yields for tobacco by about a quarter, for cotton by more than 12 percent and for corn by 4 percent, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture preliminary estimates.
Troxler described one farmer who lost 100,000 bushels of harvested and stored corn, when winds ripped the roof off a grain bin and dumped 15 inches of rain inside it.
"He actually got robbed going to the bank. He had gotten it out of the field, had it in storage, and the only thing left to do was sell it," the agriculture secretary said.
Troxler urged lawmakers to step up state disaster relief effort for farmers, saying that federal response is too slow. Federal loans often require collateral that disaster-hit farmers don't have, and other loan programs are backlogged for two years, he said.
"We don't want this to be the final straw that runs farm families off the farm. We don't want this to see this agriculture infrastructure that we have in place," Troxler said.
He proposed that lawmakers set aside $25 million to help farmers guarantee up to $125 million in private loans to bridge the time until federal money comes in. The loans would also be available to farmers affected by the April tornadoes and the closing of Townsends Inc. chicken plants in Siler City and Mocksville.
Troxler didn't have an estimate of how much the loan program might end up costing the state, but said that, given the financial strain on the state, it was the most fiscally responsible response he could think of.
He also proposed that lawmakers:
- create a state assistance fund for agriculture disasters, modeled on programs in Missouri and Louisiana
- set up strike teams to help farmers in the immediate aftermath of disasters. Using existing resources in the Agriculture Department, the teams could help restore power to farms, corral livestock, repair fences and put tarps on grain bins, Troxler said.
- give the State Agriculture Board authority to suspend certain rules, such as width and weight restrictions on vehicles, to help farmers salvage crops after disasters. The board is composed of the agriculture secretary and members appointed by the governor.
- train youthful offenders to help respond to agriculture disasters, modeled on a state program that trains them to aid in fighting forest fires in western North Carolina
"This is a terrible disaster that's going to take a response not only from the feds but from the state, as well, to recover," Troxler said.
Farmers seeking recovery aid can call a state hotline at 866-506-6222 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.