Southwest Georgia farmers wait in pain as storm aid stalls in Congress



Ken Hickey is at his breaking point.

The fourth-generation farmer had already mortgaged three pieces of land to keep operations afloat on his family’s 3,400-acre cotton and peanut farm about 40 miles south of Albany. Then came October’s Hurricane Michael, which wiped out about 90 percent of his cotton crop and prompted him to make one last Hail Mary move.

“This is it,” said Hickey, who recently put up a fourth, 250-acre swath of land as collateral so he could secure financing for his 2019 crops.

“I will not and I’m not going to mortgage every piece of property that my daddy and my grandparents have worked so hard to obtain … to keep going,” he said.

Hickey’s story is not uncommon in southwest Georgia, where many farmers are resorting to desperate measures as they wait for Congress to approve emergency aid six months after Michael brought the region to its knees.

Without imminent help from Washington, some local farmers warn they could be forced to sit out the upcoming planting season, sell off land or even leave agriculture for good.

But deep partisan mistrust is making it exceedingly difficult for lawmakers to reach consensus on a long-promised natural disaster relief bill, even with no stated opposition to delivering federal aid to storm victims. An increasingly bitter fight over funding for Puerto Rico could keep a bipartisan deal out of reach for weeks — if not months.

“It appalls me to no end that Congress thinks that we can continue to operate while taking hit after hit after hit,” Hickey said.



‘Apparent contempt’

Assistance for natural disaster victims was once a nonpartisan issue on Capitol Hill.

Keenly aware that the next big storm could hit their own districts, lawmakers passed emergency spending bills with relative ease after natural disasters in the 1990s and 2000s.

But the tenor of the debate has changed significantly over the past 15 years.

Congress spent tens of billions of dollars to help the Gulf Coast rebuild in the years following Hurricane Katrina’s historic devastation. About the same time, ballooning deficits and scandals involving earmarks, or congressionally directed projects, prompted heartburn among some lawmakers about Washington’s often unchecked spending habits.

Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the Northeast in the days preceding the 2012 presidential election, prompted an emotional, months-long fight between House Republicans and President Barack Obama over deficit spending. Lawmakers from the Northeast argued the GOP was withholding money to punish the largely Democratic region after it helped deliver Obama a second term. Republicans denied that, saying they wanted to provide aid while being fiscally responsible.

Congress eventually approved money for Sandy victims, but the partisan acrimony has only deepened in the years since Donald Trump assumed the presidency.

The enmity has brought most serious legislating to a halt and also complicated passage of must-pass measures, including the roughly $14 billion package Georgia lawmakers have repeatedly tried to advance to aid farmers and rebuild infrastructure following major natural disasters in 2018 and 2019. The legislation seeks to cover Hurricane Michael, California wildfires, tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia and other weather events spanning a dozen-plus states and U.S. territories.

Democrats have said the bill must include hundreds of millions in additional funding for Puerto Rico, which is still struggling to recover from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

Credit: Carolyn Cole

Credit: Carolyn Cole

The White House has refused to sign off on anything beyond a $600 million funding patch for the island’s food stamp program, which feeds about 43 percent of Puerto Rico’s population and has already experienced debilitating cuts. Trump said the territory’s leadership has mismanaged past aid from Congress and doesn’t deserve much more.

“The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA,” Trump tweeted last week.

Democrats have accused the Trump administration of slowing the release of previously approved money for Puerto Rico and treating the U.S. territory’s residents as second-class citizens.

“President Trump, for reasons that defy decency, harbors an apparent contempt for the people of Puerto Rico,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech last week.

The spat has brought the Hurricane Michael relief bill to a screeching halt in the Senate, despite a forceful push from Georgia's political leadership.

Gov. Brian Kemp and U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson have all made personal pleas to the president, and the latter two have huddled extensively with top Senate Democrats to try to find a way forward on the issue. But the legislation appears stalled for the foreseeable future.



Local effects

After Michael first swept through Georgia, the federal government did spend some money to aid cleanup efforts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has to date approved upwards of $12.3 million in assistance for more than 5,000 individual households in the 20 Georgia counties hit hardest by the storm. It's also reimbursed counties almost $5.4 million for their emergency response and debris removal work.

Some of the additional aid money officials are seeking in Washington would take a different course, going directly into the pockets of farmers. Community bankers and agriculture advocates, however, warn it may already be too late for some in southwest Georgia.

“As partisans continue to bicker, farmers continue to work, all while time is quickly running out for many of them without some real assistance,” state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said.

January through March is when most line up financing for seeds, equipment and living expenses and prepare their fields for planting season. But without federal aid money to help them settle their 2018 debts, many have been unable to obtain financing for their upcoming crop.



Low-interest loans approved by the General Assembly offered temporary help to some farmers, but Hank Jester, a co-owner of the Blakely-based Cornerstone Insurance Group, said some have been forced to delay planting, mortgage their land or find other stopgap fixes.

“I’ve been doing this 35 years, and this is the hardest year I’ve ever had trying to keep the farmers that I work with in business,” said Jester, who himself grows corn, cotton and peanuts.

One estimate from the University of Georgia concluded the state's agriculture sector suffered a direct hit from the storm of more than $2.5 billion. That comes after many farmers have also had to contend with years of low commodity prices and rising equipment costs, as well as new tariffs.

The state's pecan industry has been hit particularly hard by the one-two punch of Chinese tariffs and Hurricane Michael. It'll take the better part of a decade for orchards destroyed by the storm to regrow and begin turning real profits.



Jester and other bankers warn that the longer Congress waits to finalize an aid package, the more farmers will miss their planting windows. Corn, for example, is typically planted in the early spring, and cotton seeds in April.

“When you don’t get a crop in the ground on time, every day that you’re late you’ve got a percent reduction in yield that you’re probably facing, which means that your cash at the end of the year’s going to be less,” Jester said.

Agriculture is the state’s largest industry, bringing in $73.3 billion a year and employing 1 in 7 workers, according to UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. So disruptions to farm incomes have ripple effects across the state’s economy, making an impact on local restaurants, hardware stores and shopping centers.

Some also say the years of financial stress could have even longer-term effects: driving younger farmers out of the industry.

If and when Congress approves the funding — there’s a real fear that lawmakers won’t be able to come to an agreement before May — it could still take weeks for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finalize the formula that will determine which farmers receive aid.



Hickey, a Republican member of the Thomas County Board of Commissioners, said it took more than a year after Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017 for the department to hand out all the aid money he’d been promised. He said a similar timeline won’t work for him this time.

“We don’t need it a year, year and a half down the line. We need it right now,” said Hickey, who blamed Democrats for blocking the Hurricane Michael money.

“How ignorant are they and how political is it for them to ignore what we’re dealing with on the ground down here trying to put food into storage and clothes on people’s backs?” he said. “They’re up there making ($174,000) a year and don’t give a damn.”

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