Hurricane-ravaged SW Ga. farmers cheered by federal aid news

Some Georgia corn farms this summer stayed productive, like this one in Wrens south of Augusta, far from parts of the state hammered by Hurricane Michael in 2018. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Some of the long-awaited federal disaster relief funding will soon begin to make its way down to southwest Georgia farmers, arriving nearly a year after Hurricane Michael ripped through the state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday that producers can start signing up for a piece of the $3 billion aid package on Wednesday. This round of aid will be available through the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus, which will also provide aid for other disasters in the last two years.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said Monday that “although these disaster program benefits will not make producers whole, we hope the assistance will ease some of the financial strain farmers, ranchers and their families are experiencing.”

But growers will have to wait a bit longer for the block grant that Georgia officials have requested.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said Monday afternoon that there is no word yet when that additional aid will arrive – or how much will come. Black said he was told about $1.2 billion of the money was set aside for the just-announced round of aid, leaving about $1.8 billion potentially for the block grants.

“Since we were the most harmed, we’ve probably been the most aggressive in our ask,” Black said in an interview. “We’re certainly going to fight for our substantial share.”

Hurricane Michael crossed over into Georgia last October as a Category 3 storm, devastating the state’s agricultural industry and causing an estimated $2.5 billion in losses.

Federal aid for the state’s farmers was delayed for months after it was caught up in a standoff between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over whether to include additional aid for Puerto Rico.

More aid for the U.S. island was ultimately included, and the $19 billion multi-state emergency relief package was signed into law this summer.

State Rep. Sam Watson is a vegetable farmer and co-chairs the influential House Rural Development Council.

But now that the federal dollars are teed up, that’s all in the past for some.

“Everybody’s excited,” said state Rep. Sam Watson, who chairs the rural caucus and who is also a vegetable farmer in Moultrie. “They’ve been waiting a long time. It’s like Christmas.”

Watson said that likely wouldn’t be the case had the state not stepped in late last year to approve about $500 million in aid through loans for farmers and a tax credit program for timber growers.

“I think most farmers are appreciative for what they can get when they can get it,” said Charles Hall, director of the Georgia Vegetable and Fruit Growers Association, adding that he hopes the additional relief funding will not be far behind.

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