11/10/2012 10:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer
The lack of a Farm Bill will shut out producers from disaster programs normally available during events like Superstorm Sandy.
But government officials are urging producers to keep good records and report damage should money come available.
Rich Niewenhuis, president of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said farmers should immediately report any damage or crop losses to their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office.
Most counties along the Jersey coast have been declared major disaster areas by the federal government, meaning farmers in those counties could be eligible for low-interest loans to help recover from the storm.
Several counties in New York, mostly on Long Island and just north of New York City, have also been declared major disaster areas, along with counties in southern Connecticut and all of Rhode Island.
USDA has set aside $15.5 million through its Emergency Conservation Program, which provides cost share to farmers to put in things such as fencing and other conservation practices to mitigate erosion.
But that’s the extent of help available right now, as several other disaster programs — including the Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE); Livestock Indemnity; and Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish programs — ran out of money as a result of the 2008 Farm Bill expiring at the end of September.
Kent Politsch, spokesman for FSA, said Monday that farmers could get up to $500,000 in loans if they have damage and live in a designated disaster area.
But he urged producers to sign up for emergency conservation funds as applications are being accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
“When the $15.5 million is gone, it’s gone. There is no more money. Believe me, we have looked at every possible program to help producers. Unfortunately, this is it,” Politsch said.
Niewenhuis said damage has been widespread, with vegetable farmers in southern New Jersey reporting damage to fall crops and farmers in the north reporting widespread power outages.
“The big issue has been power and the difficulty finding gasoline to power generators,” Niewenhuis said.
Earlier this week, he traveled one hour from his greenhouse and crop farm in Warren County into Pennsylvania to get gas because gas stations in his state are either shuttered or the lines are too long.
Many farmers need fuel to keep generators going in dairy parlors and to power grain dryers, not to mention fuel for implements and other farm equipment.
Reports from some farmers, he said, indicate that the situation has improved since last week.
Farmers are exempt from New Jersey’s current gas rationing rule, which requires drivers to get gas on alternating days depending on whether their license plate number ends in an even or odd number.
Niewenhuis said the lack of power hasn’t affected milk pickups, as most dairy farmers have generators to keep their operations going.
The state is well-known for its vegetable and fruit production, but farmers planted 90,000 acres each of corn and soybeans last spring. He said getting power back is critical to getting the harvest done.
“The biggest need would be to restore power to get the power grids up and running so guys can run dryers, augers, to get the grain harvest finished,” he said.
Some farmers on Long Island have been hit by significant flooding, especially on the north fork of the island where berms that were designed to hold back waters from Long Island Sound were breached, resulting in salt water getting on fruit and vegetable farms.
Allan Connell, part-time district conservationist with the Suffolk Soil & Water Conservation District, said salt water flooded an entire farm of mixed vegetables along with a nearby fruit farm.
One farmer, he said, reported an irrigation pond had been flooded while others reported structural damage from high winds.
Sue Pierchanowski of the Suffolk County office of FSA said emergency loans will be offered to farmers in need. Suffolk County has been declared a major disaster area.
While damage isn’t widespread, she said the fact that salt water likely damaged trees and flooded soils will take a lot of money to repair.
“Salt water has gotten into cropland and it could be in the millions of dollars in damage,” Pierchanowski said.
Bill Wehry, director of Pennsylvania’s FSA office, said damage reports are still coming in from county FSA offices and that it’s still too early to tell just how much corn and soybeans were lost due to either high winds or flooding in Pennsylvania.
Unlike last fall, when much of the state’s corn and soybeans were lost to flooding, farmers are ahead of the harvest this season.
The Oct. 28 Crop Progress Report, the last before Superstorm Sandy hit, showed 64 percent of corn and 63 percent of the state’s soybeans harvested, both well ahead of last year’s pace and the five-year average.
The latest report, released Monday, showed 72 percent of corn harvested and 66 percent of soybeans.
Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said farmers have been reporting power outages and upended trees along with some structural damage.
In the northeast part of the state, milk deliveries to processors and markets in New York and New Jersey have been slowed by power outages.
But overall, O’Neill thinks farmers dodged a bullet.
“The biggest thing here compared to last year, the storm came when most of the harvesting had been done. Flooding was a big part of last year. Luckily, we did not get the flooding like last year and what occurred in other states,” he said.
“Most orchards have been picked, some corn and soybeans are still out there,” he said, “but overall, Pennsylvania weathered the storm pretty well compared to the other states.”
Gene Gantz, crop insurance educator with USDA’s Risk Management Agency office in Harrisburg, said it’s too early to know how much in claims will likely be paid out to producers with crop losses.
A record $67 million in crop insurance claims were paid out last year, he said, largely due to flooding last fall.
Between $22 million and $23 million in farmer-paid premiums have been collected this season, and Gantz said he thinks crop insurance payments could surpass that, given the fact that many farmers lost crops earlier in the summer due to excessive heat and dry weather.
He said 50 percent of the state’s eligible acres are insured though the crop insurance program.
Gantz said farmers should call their crop insurance agent immediately if they see problems out in the field.
“Keep good records. Pictures are good. Just assume that you have to plead your case before a jury that doesn’t want to pay you,” he said.
Gantz said New Jersey will likely pay out the most in crop insurance claims due to Superstorm Sandy, but that New York will pay out the most overall because of earlier issues with frost damaging the state’s extensive apple crop.