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Local farmers and agri-businessmen gathered at lunch Tuesday to hear an update on storm relief for Georgia farmers from the state’s agriculture chief.
United National Bank hosted the luncheon for the local farm community and approximately 125 farmers and others involved in agriculture here attended the noontime event, which featured Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.
“Our lives have not been the same since last October, but we are all involved in this together. You folks live and breathe it everyday, but it’s not my name on your (bank) note,” Commissioner Black said.
He said that no matter how hard he and his team with the Department of Agriculture work to help Georgia farmers, it is the farmers themselves who are struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
Commissioner Black applauded the efforts of the state’s congressional delegation for working in unison to help appropriate disaster relief funds for Georgia farmers.
Black said that he and members of the state’s congressional delegation did not agree on some issues, but he said when it comes to agriculture and impacting Georgia, the state’s representatives in the Congress are united.
“They listen and have a desire to do the right thing,” Commissioner Black said.
Black praised the efforts of Second Congressional District Representative Sanford Bishop, a Democrat, who represents this section of the state, for his work with Republican members of Congress from Georgia in championing agriculture and the needs of local farmers in Washington.
Through the efforts of Congressman Bishop and Congressman Austin Scott, a Republican representing Georgia’s Eighth Congressional District, an appropriation for disaster relief was increased from $1.1 billion in the House of Representatives to $3 billion.
“That is where it is today and it rests in the Senate,” Commissioner Black said.
The ag commissioner also noted that included in that is disaster relief for victims of wildfires and that other appropriations are included in the packages including food stamps for storm victims in Puerto Rico.
“Production agriculture in Georgia is in peril. Both lenders and farmers need some certainty. For the 116th time I’ll say it, it’s time for the 116th Congress to do something,” Black said.
He added, “We are closer to a decision (in Washington) than ever before and I’m encouraged by that.”
Commissioner Black said once legislation is passed and is signed by the president, U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue will have significant latitude over how the disaster relief is divvied up.
“He knows our situation and he will be fair,” Black said of Secretary Perdue.
The Georgia agriculture commissioner said no one can say at this time how much of the $3 billion would come to Georgia, but he said if the decision is based on the amount of damage in the state then farmers should fair better.
Black said that Perdue intends to offer assistance to timber producers, which has never been done previously, according to Commissioner Black.
Black also shared with the group of local farmers news that loans for $55 million to farmers financed with appropriations from the General Assembly late last year in an effort to provide relief for storm ravaged farms were in the process of being closed.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, a special session of the legislature was conducted late last year. The Georgia Development Authority is administering the loan program through the SAFETY21 Loan Program. Funds are being loaned in order to bridge the gap until other disaster program and insurance funds become available. The loans have a 7-year term with a graduated interest rate starting at one percent.
He also said that included in Governor Brian Kemp’s mid-term budget is an additional $20 million that can be loaned to farmers in the state. Unfortunately, Black said there has been $108 million in loan requests.
“The state cannot do it alone,” Black said. He said farmers need the assistance of the federal government in order to survive the devastation of Hurricane Michael.
Commissioner Black urged the local farming community to focus on the windshield and not the rear view mirror. He noted that the windshield is a larger, wide expanse and the rear view mirror is about the quarter of the size.
“Everything you see in the rear view mirror has already happened. Looking out the windshield is what is about to happen,” he said. The ag commissioner said farmers should not focus on the past, but on the future. “It’s the only way to survive this,” Black said.
He also quoted from Psalms 91:1 “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most high shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty..”
Commissioner Black said that many things in life are uncertain, but he said the scripture is certain. “I’m sure glad the Lord said ‘shall’ and not might. Let’s well in abiding together,” Black encouraged the local farm community.
The unprecedented losses in Georgia as a result of Hurricane Michael, according to the Department of Agriculture include: $550 to $600 million in cotton crop loss; $13 million landscape and green industry losses; $374 million in timber losses; $480 million for vegetables; $560 million for pecan; $25 million for poultry production losses; and $10 to $20 million for peanut crop losses. All told, the estimates are of $2.5 billion in losses to the state’s agriculture and timber industries.
At the conclusion of Commissioner Black’s remarks Tuesday, Grady County farmer John Harrell responded publicly with a message of appreciation for the ag commissioner and his work to assist the state’s farmers.
He said Commissioner Black worked tirelessly for the SAFETY 21 program, which he said had provided farmers with a lifeline.
“People will never know what all you have done for agriculture, but we thank you and I wanted to tell you publicly,” Harrell said.