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Disaster assistance for Southern farmers

Legislation to provide timely disaster assistance to producers facing severe crop loss from this fall’s heavy rains and floods has been introduced by Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry and Mississippi Rep. Travis Childers.

Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran introduced companion legislation last week.

“In north Mississippi, both farmers and local economies have suffered from this season’s unprecedented rainfall,” said Childers. “Significant assistance currently available through the USDA is still not enough to make up for the incredible crop losses local producers have experienced.

“While we await the full implementation of farm bill assistance provisions, this important legislation will help local economies stay afloat by providing farmers with the resources they need to get back on their feet.”

“Time and again Arkansas experiences the devastating effects of Mother Nature and this year she was especially hard on farmers across northeast Arkansas,” said Berry. “During this difficult economic environment, it is imperative to help our farm families get the resources and federal support they need to recover from damages and losses to crops.

“While this funding is not the entire solution, it will provide additional resources to help some farmers make it through this growing season.”

In Mississippi, 79 of 82 counties have been granted primary disaster designations by the USDA based on a minimum 30 percent loss for at least one crop in each county.

Agriculture economists at Mississippi State University estimate that state crop losses are nearing $485 million, exceeding 30 percent of the state’s overall crop value. Based on crop reports, MSU noted that nearly 64 percent of the state’s sweet potatoes, 50 percent of cotton, 44 percent of soybeans, and 41 percent of grain sorghum will also be lost this year.

To date, the USDA has designated more than half of Arkansas’s counties as primary natural disaster areas.

The University of Arkansas’s Division of Agriculture released a report estimating Arkansas crop losses for the 2009 harvest have risen to more than $300 million. The report also shows a decline of nearly $162 million in economic value-added, which encompasses soy, corn and rice processing, cotton ginning and reduced household spending by Arkansans whose incomes are tied to agriculture.

The legislation also includes $650 million to assist specialty crop producers, $150 million in assistance for livestock producers and $42 million to aid first handlers of cottonseed.

Agriculture organizations have expressed thanks for the proposed legislation.

In a National Cotton Council press release, David Cochran, an Avon, Miss., cotton producer, said the 30-plus inches of rain he received in September and October “cost us anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of our anticipated yield. We felt like we had one of the better cotton crops than we’ve had in recent years, but a lot of the cotton either hardlocked and fell out or just rotted.”

2009 has been unusually devastating for Cochran, who said that immediate disaster assistance such as that introduced in the Senate and House would help him meet his financial obligations.

Cochran said his ginning operation also was hurt because of the lost seed. “We gin for the seed, and where we normally get 700 to 800 pounds of seed per bale, we’re only seeing 550 to 600 pounds.”

Dow Brantley, an England, Ark., cotton producer still suffering from the 2008 hurricane’s effect, finally planted 850 acres of cotton this year only to see the rains drench his late crop and rob him of 300 to 400 pounds of cotton per acre as well as an average of two cents per pound on quality discounts.

“If we’re fortunate enough to get some type of assistance, it will help but we’re still going to have a loss — no way around it,” Brantley said. “If we don’t get assistance, we’ll spend the next couple of years just trying to get out from under this loss. I can weather one but not two years in a row. You just can’t lose this much cotton with the costs of the inputs it requires to make a crop.”

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