By Gary Cooper
While much of mainstream news seems to be stuck on mid-term campaign coverage, thousands of rural farm families severely impacted by Hurricane Michael are starting to wonder if their words are even being heard.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam hosted an agricultural listening session late Tuesday afternoon in Blountstown that attracted several hundred family farmers to share their stories and try to get some of their questions answered. Terms like “Big Ag” seem to be entering the political rhetoric in some statewide races these days. However, there was little of that image in this crowd of weary farm families. Their farms and small businesses make up most of the economic base of this rural panhandle region of the state.
In his opening comments after introducing various officials and others in the room, Putnam stated, “This was a unique storm, and it impacted commodities for which there are not necessarily programs to assist you, and that’s what this meeting is about.”
Putnam says he hopes to apply lessons learned from Hurricane Irma and the congressional action already taken for helping producers affected by that storm. After hearing about damage assessments, he plans to ask Congress to update the Irma bill with the needs that are now in place due to Hurricane Michael. He says this week’s meeting is part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ effort to get “the specific information to be able to essentially go back to Congress, modify the Irma bill, have Michael applied to it and have them cough up the money. So it will take an act of Congress, but we’re not trying to re-invent the wheel.”
Putnam told the crowd that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices are the key connection for farmers who need assistance with various farm programs they may already be involved in, and to share information about other crops needing assistance. However, it was clear at the meeting that the area FSA offices are incredibly overwhelmed and still waiting on extra office help to push all the needed paperwork to get assistance programs moving.
There is an FSA grower meeting scheduled for 9:00–11:00 a.m. on Nov. 7 in Calhoun County for farmers and FSA to connect and share the latest details.
Putnam shared some critical insights with AgNet Media’s Gary Cooper in the interview below. He pointed out that multiple storms have now affected multiple states in the deep Southeast agriculturally. “That’s more friends, more folks, more congressional delegations helping us to reinforce the need for there to be a modification of that disaster assistance … and have Florence and Michael included in that.”
Among a number of locals speaking during the first part of the meeting was area farmer Zeke Williams from Grand Ridge, Florida. He drew applause with his direct, down-to-earth comments about how red tape has all but bogged down relief efforts in a very time-sensitive situation for farmers in his area. Williams spoke with Cooper afterward; hear the interview below. Hopefully Williams’ words will resonate with politicians and other officials who will soon be asked to help speed things up to save a big part of the agricultural base in this region of the country.
One area representative making the trek to storm-ravaged Blountstown for Putnam’s listening session was Congressman Neal Dunn of Florida’s second district. He offered some poignant comments about the hard-working farm people in his district who are hurting bad right now. Listen to Dunn’s comments here:
Putnam’s opening remarks included updates on Hurricane Michael’s agricultural impacts. These numbers are for Florida alone:
- Forestry – $1.3 billion impact with 3 million acres affected. An estimated 350,000 acres were completely destroyed. An additional 1 million acres can be classified as as severe loss, which is 75 to 90 percent loss, and 1.4 million acres suffered losses of 15 to 20 percent.
- Cotton – Significant devastation with $50 million in impact
- Peanuts – $23 million in impact
- Nurseries and horticulture industry impact study continues to complete accurate assessments
- Poultry had significant damage to several of the houses, estimated impact of $10 million
- Vegetables – Nearly $9 million in impact; $7 million in other field crops
- Dairy – $6.5 million impact
- Cattle – $6 million impact
- Fruit (mostly citrus) – $4.5 million impact
- Pecans and tree nuts, mostly pecans – just over $4 million impact
- Aquaculture – $3 million impact
- Apiary – $2 million impact, although it’s still too early to really understand the full ramifications of the harm to the bee industry
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