Farmers who were hit by hurricanes and wildfires last year can still sign up for significant financial assistance from the USDA, but time will run out Friday, November 16th, Farm Service Administrator Richard Fordyce told Agri-Pulse in an interview.
Farmers who grew impacted crops, trees, bushes, or vines are eligible for the assistance. Agriculture production was hit hardest in Florida, Georgia, California, Texas and Puerto Rico last year. While California farmers suffered from fires last year, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria ripped through other states, doing more than $2.2 billion in damage to citrus groves, cotton fields and many other farming operations.
USDA calculations showed only about a quarter of the damages would be covered by crop insurance.
Very preliminary data shows, as of Wednesday, FSA has approved and begun making payments on 1,593 applications from farmers who saw their trees, bushes or vines ripped out by a hurricane or crops burned by fire last year, Fordyce said. Those finished applications account for $34.4 million worth of aid, just a small fraction of the $2.36 billion that Congress provided for in the 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program (WHIP) in the 2018 spending bill.
A lot of applications are still being processed, and Fordyce said he expects a lot more to be submitted and approved before the Friday deadline. As of Wednesday, there were more than 1,000 applications “in various stages of the process” to get approved by FSA, according to a spokeswoman for the agency.
“I do believe that with the deadline just around the corner, we’ll start to see a pretty steady uptick in applications and the number of applications that are finished,” Fordyce said.
In the meantime, processing many applications is complicated by the fact that many farmers – especially those who grow crops like oranges, blueberries, grapes and pecans – don’t have crop insurance and FSA doesn’t have the necessary data on their operations.
A farmer’s hay crop does qualify under the 2017 WHIP as long as it has not been baled or stored, according to the FSA. Still, farmers with baled hay intended for feed may be able to get relief under the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish (ELAP) program. Pasture for grazing is also not covered under 2017 WHIP, but may be eligible under the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP).
To help speed up the process, FSA trained employees from unaffected states to help their colleagues in states hit by hurricanes.
These volunteers have been trained to join what FSA calls “jump teams” and have been dispatched from Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Town hall meetings have been held throughout regions hit hardest by hurricanes and wildfires to get the message out about the available assistance, even to those who do not have insurance.
If farmers are not insured, they have to sign up for insurance for two years to get a payment under WHIP.
The Friday deadline can be extended, but only by Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue. The American Farm Bureau Federation is asking him to give producers in Puerto Rico more time to apply for the assistance.
“Less than 1,500 Puerto Rican farmers and ranchers have filed for payments through USDA’s 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program, which has been available there since July 2018,” the Farm Bureau said in a statement. “And few, if any, have received payments.”
Much of the problem, the group says, is that FSA offices in Puerto Rico are not giving farmers there the attention they need.
In a letter to Bill Northey, USDA's undersecretary for farm production and conservation, Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said “the lack of WHIP assistance in Puerto Rico must be addressed quickly to ensure that farming and ranching remains a critical component of Puerto Rico’s economy.”
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