5 months after Michael, Georgia farmers still wait for action in D.C.

A worker cleans up pecan trees that were damaged by Hurricane Michael at Pippin Farm in Albany in February. The University of Georgia estimates that the state’s agriculture sector suffered more than $2.5 billion in losses from the October storm. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A worker cleans up pecan trees that were damaged by Hurricane Michael at Pippin Farm in Albany in February. The University of Georgia estimates that the state’s agriculture sector suffered more than $2.5 billion in losses from the October storm. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The farmers had arrived before Gov. Brian Kemp, wearing work boots, jeans and heavy jackets to brace from the biting cold snap outside that posed the latest threat to their crops.

Between the 100 or so growers gathered in the crowded Tifton auditorium, there were tens of millions of dollars in failed or damaged crops, a small fortune vanished in the wake of Hurricane Michael.

And five months after the storm’s sudden turn brought violent winds and pounding rains through Georgia’s agricultural heartland, growers are still waiting for additional federal relief dollars promised by everyone from President Donald Trump on down.

“Planting season is here, and on behalf of all these farmers in the room, I want to say something,” said Armond Morris, a Tift County row crop farmer and an elder statesman in the ag industry.

“The banks haven’t been paid. The farming supply businesses haven’t been paid. We have chaos down here and we can’t help it,” he said. “I want you to realize the urgency we have.”

He needn’t have reminded Georgia officials. The state’s leaders have made securing that emergency assistance money their most urgent priority in Congress, pressed on by Kemp and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.

And the gathering Tuesday in Tifton was meant as both an update and a show of support. Black and Kemp came in by helicopter, while video feeds of U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue – along with several local members of the House of Representatives – were piped in from Washington.

As each addressed a crowd of impatient farmers, they apologized for the delays and vented about the sluggish pace of disaster recovery legislation.

“Now is the time to put political bickering to the side and get our folks some help,” Kemp said. “The timing could not have been worse. It’s vital we move quickly. We know that you can’t keep waiting.”

But he and other powerful Georgians are coming face to face with a cold Capitol Hill reality: the glacial pace of business in the U.S. Senate, where the legislation is currently parked. And they're running out of excuses for fed-up farmers.

“I know these people. We go to church with them. I’ve been telling them since October help is coming, and I honestly don’t know what to tell them anymore,” U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican, said at a recent Capitol Hill hearing.

“It feels like a broken promise back home to the people when we just keep saying help is coming,” he said.

‘Our day in court’

So far, the strongly written letters and arm-twisting appeals have only made so much headway.

There's no formal opposition to the $13.6 billion disaster recovery legislation introduced in the Senate last week by Perdue and Isakson. And Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently called the situation "a genuine emergency" that demanded federal action.

Despite those assurances, and the apparent support of Trump, it could still take weeks for Congress to finalize an aid package for farmers and infrastructure repair.

The legislation was designed by the Georgia Republicans to woo Democrats, with $610 million for Puerto Rico’s nutrition programs, which will run dry at the end of March.

A feud over that money was the tripping point that led negotiators to strip all disaster relief from a broader funding measure last month. That allowed Congress to avoid a second government shutdown in as many months — but it left Georgia lawmakers seething that they were blindsided by the snub.

Despite their Puerto Rico olive branch, Perdue and Isakson’s latest legislative effort is still the subject of intense horsetrading with Democratic leaders, whose support is needed to pass the bill through both chambers of Congress.

Some Democrats have quietly expressed preference for the version of the measure passed by their House counterparts during the January shutdown. The House bill includes a half-billion dollars for climate resiliency projects, tens of millions for Medicaid assistance for the Northern Mariana Islands and — perhaps most significantly — a broader commitment for cleaning up storm damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Still, Isakson has been upbeat about the bill’s prospects. Senators were pitching unrelated items they wanted to add to the legislation on Wednesday — which the three-term Republican saw as a sign that passage was almost inevitable — and McConnell committed to scheduling a floor vote by the last week of March.

“I feel real good that we’re getting everything done,” Isakson said Wednesday afternoon. “The fact that we’re all talking is significant progress.”

It’s coming at a pivotal time for the agriculture industry. Many farmers already feel shellacked by new tariffs and years of low international commodity prices, and the late-winter freeze could threaten blueberries and other crops in the field.

The University of Georgia estimated that the state’s agriculture sector suffered more than $2.5 billion in losses from Hurricane Michael alone.

With another planting season near, some stretched-thin growers can’t secure operating loans this year, said Adam Rabinowitz, a UGA agricultural economist.

“At a time when commodity prices continue to stay at low levels and uncertainty around trade and tariffs have also depressed prices,” he said, “it’s a major challenge for some farmers to plan for 2019 crops without assistance.”

That’s been the case Georgia lawmakers have made in the House in urging their colleagues to accept an expected Senate compromise.

“Time is of the essence. Farmers have got to plant,” said U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, whose southwest Georgia congressional district was slammed by the storm. “They’ve got to make sure that arrangements are made for last year’s operational loans to be satisfied so that lenders will know what will be coming forward so that everybody can make plans.”

‘Time for help now’

For Kemp, who won November’s election by dominating farm country, the funding crisis has become personal. He has tucked it into every speech he makes, slipped it into every conversation he has with federal officials.

When Trump called him Monday to check how the state was coping with the violent burst of tornadoes that tore into rural west Georgia counties, Kemp used it as another opportunity to press his case for the emergency money.

“I feel like if we can get a bill passed and get it to him, he’ll sign it,” Kemp told the farmers, adding that Trump has “some frustrations” that lawmakers were discussing broader Puerto Rico language.

“I understand that,” Kemp said. “But I told him that ‘you, and the VP and (Agriculture) Secretary Perdue have all come down here, and those folks are counting on you.’ ”

The crowd in Tifton was polite and appreciative, and many thanked Black and Kemp for leaving Atlanta amid the General Assembly session to meet in person. But they also wanted to make sure the politicians knew they were exhausted and exasperated by the delays.

Rex Bullock of Wilcox County sounded skeptical that the aid would trickle down quickly to farmers. David Bishop, a Hawkinsville farmer, worried that even when the federal spigots open it will be “hard to get a real benefit for the losses we’ve had.”

And Morris vented about the long-term damage from the storm on the psyche of the community. He’s farmed cotton, pecans, timber and peanuts across southwest Georgia for decades, and though his land was not directly in Michael’s path, he still lost about half his cotton yield.

As he talked, he pointed to faces in the crowd that lost far more than he did: vegetable farmers whose harvests were ruined, thick timber forests obliterated, pecan growers uncertain whether to plant again.

“Just look around this room. Everyone in here is having problems,” he said. “It’s been five months and it’s time for help now.”

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