Caught in the Middle

October 2, 2008

WASHINGTON (Oct 2, 2008)—In terms of farm policy, producers are in limbo right now, caught somewhere in between the new 2008 farm act and the old 2002 law.

Farm bill implementing regulations have yet to be written, lawmakers and USDA officials continue to tussle over the intent of the law, and farmers are confused.

Few farmers are feeling the effects of this trip to no-man’s-land more than the Louisiana producers who were recently slammed by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The 2008 farm bill includes a permanent disaster assistance plan known as SURE that was supposed to deal with these kinds of problems, but right now, there are more questions than answers.

Does the new program apply to this disaster? Will it work for certain crops? Will aid come in time to keep operations from going under?

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) took to the Senate floor last Saturday to plead with her colleagues to bring some certainty and aid to those struggling in the hurricanes’ wake.

“Congress should not leave trying to bail out Wall Street and leave farmers holding soggy rice or sugarcane or rotten sweet potatoes or cotton in their hands that cannot be harvested,” she explained. “People are scratching their heads, asking me: ‘Does anybody know we are out here? Does anybody care?'”

Landrieu then read two testimonials from Louisiana farmers. The first was from Wallace Ellender IV, a sugarcane farmer and grandson of the late Sen. Ellender who chaired the Agriculture Committee for many years. A portion of Ellender’s testimony(pdf) can be found below:

Based on the experience of many of our farmers who were hit hard in 2005, the [disaster] assistance can arrive too late to save the farm, even if it does ameliorate some of the debt load after the fact. As a farmer dealing with another spike in input costs, the assistance is most helpful if it can be used to keep my employees working, my diesel tanks filled, and my banker hoping for the best.Regrettably, we have been unable to find an accurate SURE (permanent disaster assistance program) calculator for sugarcane to gain a better understanding of the actual assistance that might be available to cane farmers.

Congress has developed a disaster assistance mechanism that works. In response to the 2002 hurricanes, Congress developed a delivery mechanism for ad hoc assistance to sugarcane growers in Louisiana that is tailored to the types and levels of damage associated with hurricanes and cane fields.

Louisiana has been growing sugarcane commercially for well over 200 years. Our forbearers harvested cane during the worst days of the Civil War and the Great Depression. They survived the great flood of 1927 and went back to farming after the waters receded, just as I and many of my friends have done twice in this decade. For the record, Louisiana sugarcane growers have received agricultural disaster assistance twice over our more than 200 years of production. The fact that both of those assistance packages were made necessary by intense hurricanes in this decade is a direct result of rampant coastal erosion. Unless we invest in energetic coastal restoration efforts soon, my farm may be beachfront property in a few short years before slipping quietly beneath the waves.

Landrieu then highlighted the testimony(pdf) of Jay Hardwick, who currently serves as vice chairman of the National Cotton Council. Excerpts of his speech follow:

I applaud the effort and foresight of Members of Congress for including a permanent disaster provision in the recently enacted farm bill. Unfortunately, I am concerned that the program will not be able to meet in a timely manner the needs of farmers who have suffered devastating losses this year. [W]hile USDA has made excellent strides in implementing many of the provisions of the new farm law, we have yet to see the details of the permanent disaster provisions. It is also evident that the data required to administer the whole-farm, revenue-based disaster program will not be available for some time. This means any financial assistance, in the absence of an advance payment, cannot be made available to farmers until the latter half of 2009. That is simply too late for those that have suffered losses.

As you know, today’s modern farming operations require expensive inputs and investment. Input and technology costs have escalated in 2008 with skyrocketing fuel and fertilizer prices. We are experiencing these losses at the absolute worst time because we incurred maximum costs of production as the harvest approaches. We are now dealing both with the impact of the lost revenue for this year’s crops and trying to finance next year’s crops. Without timely assistance, many Louisiana growers will be unable to settle this year’s outstanding debt or secure the necessary financing for next year’s crop.

In short, without timely assistance, some farmers will find themselves in a financial situation that will make it difficult to continue farming.

Landrieu and other Senators from areas affected by this year’s storms have thus far been unable to secure a vote on a disaster assistance package to help farmers stem the tide while final farm regulations are being written.