At last, Georgia farmers devastated by Hurricane Michael to get federal aid

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says his agency will move "swiftly" to distribute the long-awaited disaster relief grant money to farmers. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

That long-awaited federal aid for southwest Georgia farmers who felt the brunt of Hurricane Michael nearly a year and a half ago is finally on the way.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Gov. Brian Kemp formally announced Wednesday that the state is set to receive a $347 million block grant for hard-hit farmers left out of an earlier round of aid. This federal assistance, though, won’t have to be repaid.

“We flew together, we consoled families together, we gasped together, and we prayed together,” Black said to Kemp, who were surrounded by rural lawmakers who have long been fielding calls from desperate farmers back home awaiting help.

“Hallelujah, today we rejoice together,” Black said.

Farmers down in south Georgia may hold back their cheers for when they actually see the money, and it will likely take a few more months before the aid trickles down to producers in communities still left reeling from the monster hurricane.

three-week enrollment period starts on March 18. Black, whose office will manage the grant program, said he hopes to distribute the funds before the end of spring. The aid is available for timber, dairy, beef, poultry, pecan, and fruit and vegetable growers who suffered losses during the October 2018 storm.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this has never been done before. There’s no handbook for this,” Black said in response to questions about the timing of the aid.

The funding is part of a $19 billion multi-state aid package that took a long and winding path after becoming ensnared in the standoff between President Donald Trump and Democrats over additional financial assistance for Puerto Rico.

There were no hard feelings Wednesday with Georgia’s congressional delegation, though. When a reporter asked Kemp about any lessons learned about how to make aid materialize faster in the future, he responded: “I think that’d be a great question for people in Washington DC.”

“There’s always partisanship in politics, but when you have a disaster, it shouldn’t be and hopefully there won’t be in the future,” Kemp said.

Georgia lawmakers held a special session in 2018 to approve about $500 million in aid through loans for farmers and a tax credit program for timber growers. That funding was designed as a stopgap measure for some farmers on the brink of folding.

It remains to be seen how many farmers will benefit from the new aid or how much money each person might receive. Black said they will now do the working of trying to stretch out $347 million to cover losses of a storm that inflicted an estimated $2.5 billion in damage.

“Our goal is to move swiftly,” Black said. “No one will approach being made whole, but our hope is that these resources will help restore a measure of confidence in the marketplace.”

And that will have a ripple effect in these rural communities, said Rep. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican and vegetable farmer. More than half of Georgia’s counties are eligible for the program.

“It’s huge,” Watson said. “This money is going to farmers, but they have bills to pay and that money’s going to go back into their communities.

“Hopefully, everybody’s going to get ready to go again,” he said of his fellow farmers.