Smoke comes up from burned pecan trees at Justin Jones’ farm in 2019, following damage left by Hurricane Michael in 2018. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new avenue for $800 million in disaster aid aimed at Georgia pecan growers and certain other farmers in a three-state region. But when and how much will be distributed in Georgia is unclear. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia pecan growers and others move a step closer to disaster aid

Battered Georgia farmers are a step closer to getting a fresh infusion of disaster aid, more than a year after Hurricane Michael pummeled the state. But when they’ll actually get the money remains unclear.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office on Friday announced the approval of $800 million to producers in Georgia, Alabama and Florida who were affected by hurricanes Michael and Florence.

The funding is expected to eventually reach pecan growers, timberland owners and poultry and cattle farmers who suffered heavy damage but had some operations that weren’t covered by an earlier federal disaster aid program. Money from the earlier program only began reaching Georgia row crop farmers last month and is still being distributed.

A press release from Perdue’s office didn’t disclose when or how much of the new, three-state $800 million block grant funding will end up in Georgia.

An emailed statement from the office of Congressman Sanford Bishop (D-Albany) stated that Perdue “indicated that Georgia would receive $347 million” of the total and that USDA “is aiming to wrap everything up and disburse the funds by Thanksgiving.”

However, that’s “not a realistic time frame” for when the money will reach farmers, said state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Julie McPeake, who also added that the dollar figure hasn’t been finalized.

The state will be responsible for distributing the funds and the process is very involved, McPeake said. “A lot of work needs to be done to where we can be set up to take applications” from farmers. She said she couldn’t estimate when farmers will receive the money.

Efforts to reach spokespeople for the USDA and Bishop’s office were unsuccessful Friday afternoon.

Hurricane Michael struck Oct. 10, 2018 and caused more than $2.5 billion in damage to Georgia’s agriculture industry alone, according to University System of Georgia estimates. After months of political rancor, Congress approved a more than $19 billion aid package for a variety of natural disasters, including Michael. In mid October, the USDA began distributing a portion of that aid to Georgia farmers. By the end of the month, it had distributed in Georgia about $5.5 million under the continuing program. The block grants just announced by USDA also would come from the $19 billion-plus approved earlier this year.

“Natural disasters dealt producers some hefty blows in the past couple of years,” Perdue said in a press release. “This relief complements USDA’s tool chest of disaster assistance programs and crop insurance. In many cases, these special programs help us better reach producers who suffered substantial losses beyond what our regular programs cover. While we can’t make producers whole, we can give them a helping hand to get back on their feet and prepare for next year’s planting and harvest.”

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