Farm groups ask for disaster relief while Congress probes flood solutions

While President Donald Trump was flying to his Florida resort for a long Easter weekend of golf and Congress was in the midst of its own two-week long holiday, a group of 135 farm organizations and banks that supply seasonal loans to farms and ranches April 19 called on the president and Congress to put aside political differences and supply urgently needed relief in the wake of weather-related disasters in 2018 and 2019.

In the letter, the organizations—led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Milk Producers Federation, the American Soybean Association, and the National Cotton Producers of the National Cotton Council—highlighted the year’s unprecedented destruction.

Farmers and ranchers signing the letter said they are especially anxious for relief because these disasters have come on top of an ongoing downturn in farm income. In response, many banks have tightened credit, placing some growers in jeopardy of not receiving critical funds needed to plant this year’s crops absent some form of federal relief.

The undersigned organizations request immediate action to address what they called “the dire situations” impacting farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses and rural communities across the nation.

“Farms across the country endured an incredibly difficult year in 2018 and the trend continues in 2019 with challenging market prices and destructive weather conditions,” the letter said.

“Historic hurricanes Florence and Michael, along with unprecedented wildfires, droughts, flooding and other natural disasters, devastated agricultural regions throughout the nation.”

The letter addressed specific regional monetary losses, including losses on Puerto Rico. Trump has refused to fund assistance to the island commonwealth, save for some added Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding.

“Estimated agriculture losses in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina alone total nearly $5.5 billion. Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri currently estimate losses at more than $3 billion. Droughts have devastated the Southwest, wildfires the West and volcanic activity in Hawaii,” the letter said. “Puerto Rico encountered its own humanitarian crisis from hurricanes Irma and Maria. For many farmers, these events have meant near complete losses.”

The letter added that while many producers benefited from the Market Facilitation Program assistance provided by the administration last fall, those producers who lost their crops due to natural disaster received no assistance.

“The Southeast has been waiting more than six months for Congress and the administration to enact disaster relief funding. In fact, numerous farmers are unable to secure production financing to plant a crop this year due to the lack of any federal agricultural disaster assistance. Without the supplemental assistance from a disaster bill, their lenders will be faced with tough loan-making decisions in 2019,” the letter continued.

“On behalf of the thousands of impacted farm families, we cannot overstate how critical and time-sensitive it is to deliver on the commitments made last year to enact disaster relief for the farmers, ranchers and rural communities impacted by these catastrophic weather events. For many of the impacted regions, planting season is here and there is no more time for delays.

“In times of unprecedented natural disasters, our nation always has stepped up to help farmers and ranchers recover and restore their farms to productivity, so they can get back to producing the food, fiber and fuel for our nation. We strongly urge you to make the compromises necessary to find a path forward to approve critically-needed disaster relief, without further delay, and as soon as Congress returns from its two-week recess. The livelihoods of farm families and the economic health of rural communities are at stake.

“We urge you to support the farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses and rural communities that were devastated by these natural disasters.”

Signatories to the letter included the Farm Credit Council, Independent Community Bankers of America, the Farm Credit Council and several local Farm Credit banks, Plains Cotton Growers, as well as several state Farm Bureau affiliates (Kansas was absent from the list), along with several southern state and regional fruit and vegetable producer organizations, such as the Georgia Peach Commission.


Army Corps takes heat on dam management

As farm groups demanded action on assistance from natural disasters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received criticism from several U.S. senators during a hearing in Glenwood, Iowa, April 18, to examine the massive spring flooding along the Missouri River that caused more than $3 billion in damage in the Midwest.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-IA, said flooding shouldn’t be such a regular occurrence along the Missouri River, adding: “The trend of flood and rebuild, flood and rebuild must end.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, added that the Corps should be more aggressive in preventing flood damage and consider the effects of climate change.

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“They are too slow, too bureaucratic and they don’t have enough money,” said Gillibrand, who is running for president and was in Iowa touring flood damage. She took part in the hearing because she serves on the committee that oversees the Corps.

The sentiments may be appealing in Midwestern states that have endured flooding along rivers that the Corps is charged with managing, but they may not be as popular with supporters of other approved uses of the river, such as protecting endangered species and navigation.

The Corps’ John Remus said the agency works to balance all the uses of the river and maximize the benefit to several when possible. But flood control is the main concern anytime flooding is imminent along the Missouri River.

“The number one priority of the Corps in its operations is life and public safety,” Remus said.

The Corps has also said that much of the water that caused the Midwest flooding in March came from rain and melting snow that flowed into the Missouri River downstream of all the dams it controls. At the same time massive amounts of water were filling the reservoirs and some water had to be released.

Farmer Leo Ettleman said the Corps should have made significant changes to its operating manual after the historic 2011 floods, but neither the Corps nor Congress took action. Ettlemen said the kind of flooding the area saw this spring will continue unless changes are made.

“In the past eight years, Congress has done little or nothing except to offer prayers and thoughts, which are appreciated, but won’t fix the problem,” said Ettleman, who farms near Percival, Iowa, and joined a lawsuit against the Corps after the 2011 flood.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst farms near the Missouri River. He said the lessons from this year’s flooding should lead to changes about where levees are built and how the river is managed.

“When flood recovery is complete, we will have failed if every structure is the same as it was and if the management of the river has not changed,” Hurst said. “To do the same things and expect better results is the triumph of hope over experience.”

Rep. Sam Graves, whose district includes the northwestern Missouri area ravaged by flooding in March, introduced a bill this month that would remove fish and wildlife as an authorized management priority on the Missouri River and make flood control the highest priority. The bill would require revision of the Missouri River Master Manual within 90 days of enactment.

“Time and again, we continue to see fish and birds take precedence over people and property when it comes to managing the Missouri River,” Graves, a Republican, said in a statement. “This latest round of flooding has devastated communities up and down the river. We already know that the management practices are contributing to it.”

Area politicians have said repeatedly since the flood that flood control should be the Corps’ top priority.

Robert Criss, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has been studying flooding for more than two decades, said there might be a more important factor than how the Corps’ priorities are ranked.

The Missouri River has been made narrower over the years, Criss said, and the Corps has worked to maintain a defined channel for barge traffic even though few barges ever cross the river near Iowa and Nebraska.

“We’re having this problem because we messed with the rivers too much,” Criss said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].