Arkansas farmers hit by flooding can expect an expedited disaster declaration, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said following a May 7 flyover of northeast Arkansas.
Perdue, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Sen. John Boozman, and U.S. House members Rick Crawford and French Hill, took to the sky to get a first-hand look at the damage caused by storms that hit the Mid-South April 27-30. All spoke at a news conference held in the Arkansas State Police hangar at the Little Rock airport.
Hutchinson also said that “starting Wednesday (May 10), FEMA will be in Arkansas working with our regional teams to assess that damage.” FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The president asked me to come down here and take a close look; obviously, for the impact [to] Arkansas agriculture,” Perdue said. “We’ve had our share of natural disasters in agriculture, but boy, you all are trying to set a record here … Obviously in 2011 and even some last year, and this year as well.”
When asked if the trip was necessary, he said, “There’s no substitute for seeing it. The president wanted me to come and get a first-hand view so I can come back and advocate on behalf of Arkansans to let him know exactly what’s going on here.”
Before he can issue any declaration, Perdue said, an assessment will have to be done. The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture issued a preliminary assessment of the damage on May 5, pegging the loss at $64.5 million. Rice was expected to be the hardest hit with 156,000 acres affected. (See: http://bit.ly/2017-Flood-Prelim).
Before the news conference, the delegation met with Mark Cochran, vice president-agriculture for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, to discuss the estimates and the situation.
“Dr. Cochran and his team are already about that and will take the Extension service, county directors both from FSA and the Extension service all over the state” to get the assessment done, Perdue said. “As soon as that report is given to the governor, he’ll send it up to us. I’ve committed to him that we will expedite that turnaround on that declaration as quickly as possible.”
Cochran said that the Division of Agriculture “will have some new numbers out early next week.”
“The Division of Agriculture is actively working in three primary areas: estimates of economic losses from the flood and rain – essential for disaster declarations; assistance to the farmers for the tough replant and land management decisions they will face when the water recedes; and the role our county extension offices will play in overall community assistance as the affected counties deal with this tragic event,” he said.
The assessment will also include more detail.
“We’ll start estimating some expected yield losses from having to replant,” Cochran said. “With the late dates for the replanting, we know that’s going to result in considerably lower yields. That’s in addition to the lost costs from seed, fertilizer, land preparations and herbicide that they’ve already invested.”
Cochran said the Division of Agriculture would also look into the effect of on-farm storage and gauge “the severity of the losses of grain grown last year that we were hoping we could find markets for. We will also begin to estimate losses to irrigation and other equipment once the fields dry.”
“We have great sympathy for the ag industry and we will try to get these numbers as soon as we possibly can,” he said.
Support from congressional delegation
Crawford, who represents the flooded district, said Perdue has a couple of unique qualifications that could help Arkansas agriculture.
“There are two things here with our secretary: one, he’s a Southerner. Why that matters is because here in Arkansas, we wrestle with this day in and day out, in Washington. We have such an inordinate representation of Midwest agriculture in Washington, so having that counterbalance at the administrative level is critical,” he said.
“Second, he’s a farmer. He speaks our language. He knows what you’re talking about. We’ve got a ‘twofer’ … and we appreciate that.”
Sen. John Boozman said the flyover would enable him and the Arkansas delegation to “tell our colleagues in Congress the extent of the damage. We are continuing to work with the secretary and continuing to work with FEMA. We have a lot of homework to do.”
Hill told the group, “I’m here to send a signal that the whole delegation, not just the First Congressional District, is impacted by this because agriculture is the Arkansas economy.”
The flooding points out the importance of surface water control infrastructure, he said.
“This just illustrates the importance of our surface water control system on our rivers: The Black, the White, the Arkansas, the Mississippi — and for our rice industry, the critical nature of using surface water and moving it across the Grand Prairie,” Hill said. It’s “something I hope we consider when we look for major ways to have public and private money support our infrastructure.”
More than once, Perdue remarked on the strength of the farming community.
“I have to hand it to our ag interests. They are the most resilient people I’ve ever seen. While they may be covered up in water right now, they’re going to be back out there as soon as this water recedes, doing what they’ve always [been] doing, feeding a hungry world.”