Georgia farm troubles lead to spike in bankruptcy action

The number of Georgia farm bankruptcies has surged in recent months to among the highest in the nation, as growers grappled with poor prices, burdensome tariffs and lingering effects from brutal weather.

But the level is still lower than it was in some other recent years.

Though millions of dollars in assistance have begun to roll out, many farmers are still waiting for promised federal aid for natural disasters such as Hurricane Michael. It’s unlikely that the payouts will make up for all the losses that have grown over the years, bankruptcy attorneys said.

And several expect more local farmers to seek bankruptcy court protection in the next few months.

“Farmers have not had a real good year in a long time,” said Wes Boyer, a Macon bankruptcy attorney who often works with farmers.

He predicted more troubles as they continue to wrestle with low prices for what they grow and raise. Meanwhile, their ownership interests continue to erode as they borrow — if they can find a willing lender — to make up for the losses.

Creditors generally have been patient with farmers waiting for federal assistance, said Ray Holland, a South Georgia bankruptcy attorney. But farmers are seeing the limits.

“More people are running out of options and are beginning to get sued finally,” he said.

Georgia logged 37 new Chapter 12 filings in the latest 12-month period ending Sept. 30, according to a report last week from the U.S. Courts. That’s up from 25 for the same period a year earlier. But it’s down from 43 and 41 in the periods for 2017 and 2016, respectively. Chapter 12 is set aside largely for family farmers. Both Georgia’s latest 12-month total number of cases and its growth compared to the same period a year ago are among the highest in the nation, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The state’s biggest increase — 14 additional filings — came in the latest reporting period of July, August and September, as some farmers waited for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to distribute a portion of new disaster aid. The assistance had been passed by Congress and signed by the president by early June, following months of rancor.

The aid payments began Oct. 18, just over a year after Hurricane Michael struck. About $5.5 million was paid out to Georgia producers through October, a USDA spokesperson wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Payments have been made on about 18% of Georgia applications, which have now risen to more than 2,300, according to the department. The program is designed to cover between 70 and 95% of the expected value of certain kinds of agriculture losses, after reducing for things such as insurance payouts and lowered expenses.

The assistance for growers “may help some hang on,” said Dave Orlowski, who represents several small lenders as an Albany-based attorney with Drew Eckl & Farnham.

Still, Orlowski said, prices are low for peanuts and cotton, two crucial Georgia crops. Some farmers still owe debts that were supposed to be paid for 2017 and 2018, he said.

Caseloads are rising, said Walter Kelley, who serves as trustee on farm cases in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s Middle District of Georgia. He has about 90 open bankruptcy cases, including some filed in the last year.

“I think we are going to have more in 2020,” Kelley said, adding later, “There is great uncertainty in the farm economy at the moment.”

According to the Farm Bureau, the federal government projects that nearly 40% of U.S. farm income for 2019 will be tied to trade and disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance payments.

This article was updated to give the correct month that the president signed the assistance package.