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The tally of this state’s agricultural losses from Hurricane Florence is daunting and it may signal a dark future for many eastern North Carolina farmers. So far, the tally of crop and livestock losses is at more than $1.1 billion and still climbing.
The damage, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told a General Assembly committee, is even worse than what farmers suffered two years ago from Hurricane Matthew. Florence came earlier in the harvest season, Troxler said, with many crops still in the ground.
“This is an unprecedented crisis for North Carolina agriculture,” Troxler told an agriculture oversight committee Monday. “Florence was an unprecedented storm that could not have come at a worse time for agriculture.” Without significant assistance from the state, some agricultural communities won’t survive, he said.
Troxler defines significant as more than $300 million, an amount that includes $250 million for the agriculture commissioner’s proposed Farmer Recovery Reinvestment Program. The fund would pay farmers who had uninsured and underinsured crop losses, as well as livestock and poultry losses. The fund is intended to help those farmers remain in agriculture. Without the assistance, they may be out of business.
“We have to figure out a way to keep our farmers afloat,” Chief Deputy Commissioner David Smith told the committee. “They don’t need another loan. They can’t pay back hardly what they’ve got now.”
That’s no surprise, really. In the best of years, farming is a difficult business. In the worst, it’s nothing but red ink and talk of bankruptcy. Two record-setting floods in two years could be a knockout punch to many farmers in eastern North Carolina, where the land is flat and low, often no more than inches above the normal flood plain, let alone levels that used to be known as 500-year floods but now are more accurately called the new normal.
There is no question that our farmers need help, and that it’s not just charity — agriculture is one of this state’s big industries and we can’t afford to lose it, or even see it greatly diminished. Those $1.1 billion in losses translate to a total economic impact of about $2.8 billion.
But to some of the lawmakers who listened to Troxler’s plea this week, the Farmer Recovery Reinvestment Program sounded risky — it almost boils down to loading trucks with bushels of money and sending them out to spread the funds across the state’s farmland. It comes up short on details like oversight, accountability and programs with specific goals and purposes.
How will the farmers be chosen? How will the program prevent waste and fraud? Those questions need to be answered.
Even some farmers were skeptical.
“You could make good headlines,” said Duplin County farmer Morris Murphy, “but if the money is not put in the right places, it won’t solve the problems we have as farmers.” It could end up, Murphy said, “a government fiasco.”
“Fundamentally I’m not opposed to it,” chief budget writer Chuck McGrady told Troxler. The Henderson County Republican said “I just don’t know if I have enough substance right now to just buy into it.”
Brent Jackson — a Senate budget writer, a Sampson County Republican and a farmer — agreed and asked Troxler to provide much more information before the General Assembly reconvenes next week to consider further aid for flooding victims.
Given the magnitude of the state’s farm losses, the size of Troxler’s request isn’t out of line. But the commissioner also has to know his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly are a fiscally conservative bunch and won’t hand him a blank check. He’s got a lot of work to do, and fast. But the state’s farmers are depending on him to design a responsible farm disaster aid program and get it back to our lawmakers next week.