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But will it help?

Welch seeks more aid for flood-stricken Vermont farmers, who say current USDA programs don’t address their needs

WESTMINSTER—On a gray, drizzly day in a region still drying out from Tropical Storm Irene, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., visited Allen Brothers Farm to announce three agricultural bills aimed at opening federal funds for uninsured farmers.

“You’ve got to farm another day,” said Welch to the farmers who met with him.

“[Recovery is] impossible without money, and we’ve got to help,” he added.

The farmers who spoke with Welch on Oct. 18 questioned whether the money would meet their needs, adding that many current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) assistance programs don’t adequately suit the typical small Vermont farm.

Irene epitomized the phrase “when it rains, it pours” in August, when the storm dumped 7 to 11 inches of precipitation, resulting in flooding throughout the state.

The floodwaters left many farmers with mud-covered fields, dead livestock, and drowned crops. Out of concern for contamination, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told farmers not to sell any crops that went under water.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” said Stacey Allen of the post-Irene insurance process (see sidebar).

Three bills introduced

According to Welch’s office, the congressman has introduced the bills to the U.S. House. The bills will add funds to existing USDA programs.

Welch founded the House Hurricane Irene Coalition, a bipartisan group of more than 50 lawmakers whose districts were affected by Irene. He said he intends to use the political clout of the coalition to “push for passage of these farmer assistance measures” in Congress.

The Helping Devastated Farmers Act of 2011 would provide additional funding for two USDA programs designed to help farmers hit by natural disasters. If Welch’s legislation passes, the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) would receive a $151 million boost, and the Emergency Watershed Protection Program would receive an extra $187.5 million.

According to the USDA Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) website, the ECP provides funds and technical assistance for farmers to “rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters” as well as emergency water-conservation measures during times of severe drought.

Administration of ECP occurs at the state and county level, according to the USDA, which authorizes locally elected FSA county committees to launch the program after all disasters except droughts.

The local-level FSA committees also determine eligibility for funds based on on-site inspections.

According to the USDA, the disaster must have created “new conservation problems” that if left untreated would impair or endanger the land, affect the farmland’s productive capacity, and cause unique damage. Repairing the damage from the disaster must also prove cost prohibitive, requiring federal assistance to return the land to agricultural use.

The Emergency Watershed Protection Program, administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, provides assistance for protecting natural resources after a disaster

The program authorizes response work like removing debris from streams, reshaping or protecting eroded river banks, repairing damaged drainage facilities, and fixing levees.

Welch, along with U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., has also introduced H.R. 2905 to help farmers ineligible for disaster assistance “become eligible.”

According to a Welch press release, Vermont farmers affected by Tropical Storm Irene who did not have crop insurance are ineligible for USDA disaster assistance.

The Welch/Gibson bill would temporarily waive this requirement, admitting previously ineligible farmers to USDA assistance programs like Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE), Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP), and the Tree Assistance Program (TAP).

Farmers taking advantage of this waiver, however, would then be required to purchase crop insurance.

The bill, the Fresh and Local School Foods Act, would offer Vermont approximately $90,000 to purchase fruits and vegetables directly from Vermont farms for local schools.

According to Welch, the money would give farmers’ bottom lines “a much-needed boost” in the wake of Irene.

The state currently receives about $90,000 worth of fruits and vegetables from a regional distribution center in Rhode Island, a press release from Welch’s office reports. Welch’s third bill would open the money for the purchase of local produce instead.

Buried under paperwork

The farmers who met with Welch on Oct. 18 tempered their thanks with concern that neither the existing nor the potential financial assistance would meet their needs.

“Crop insurance is cumbersome,” said Paul Harlow, owner of Harlow Farm, next door to Allen Brothers.

Harlow, who lost about $300,000 between Irene and the April rains, has not purchased crop insurance because he has found the premiums don’t justify the often-small payback.

Most federal assistance programs require a lot of effort and paperwork for little return, agreed Vern Grubinger, a vegetable and berry specialist with UVM Extension.

Grubinger said that federal crop insurance provides blanket coverage crop by crop, providing the farmer fills out paperwork for each.

This procedure accommodates large farmers who grow one crop, like soy or cotton, more than it does small farmers who may plant a variety of smaller crops.

According to Grubinger, one farmer lost $30,000 worth of crops and received a $900 settlement from crop insurance.

Another wrinkle for farmers hit by Irene is that the storm wreaked its havoc in August, he said.

Farmers couldn’t replant this late in the season, some lost stored crops, and many lost their profits, said Grubinger, pointing out that federal crop insurance still won’t cover those types of losses.

Instead, Grubinger suggested, crop insurance would fit the needs of more farmers if the insurance covered the loss of potential profits.

Under such a system, farmers’ crops would be covered with a per-acre rate based on an estimate of retail profits, suggested Grubinger.

“Keep it simple for farmers,” Grubinger advised Welch.

Welch agreed that natural disaster funding should “meet the practical needs” of the community.

“We appreciate your help,” Harlow said. “We all do the best we can and know you are [doing so] too.”

Next year’s budget?

Welch said that despite contentious budget discussions, the federal lawmakers managed to get FEMA money into this year’s budget in time to help people swept over by Irene and, later, Tropical Storm Lee.

“You don’t argue when the river is rising,” he said.

But, he cautioned, “the Pied Piper of Disaster will require payment,” and next year’s budget may look very different.

“Many Vermont farmers were knocked down by Tropical Storm Irene but they are characteristically fighting to get back on their feet,” Welch said.

“In recent years, our farming community has created new business opportunities through vibrant farmers’ markets and CSA [community-supported agriculture] programs that provide Vermonters with nutritious local food,” Welch said. “These farmers need a helping hand to restore their operations and get back to business."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #124 (Wednesday, October 26, 2011).

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