OPINION: Federal relief deserved by Mississippi farmers

On Thanksgiving Day, Mississippians gathered with friends and families around dinner tables to break bread and recognize how fortunate we are in America. Just as Thanksgiving is a day on which we recognize the bounty of our blessings, it can also be a reminder of our challenges. We must be especially mindful of the devastating crop losses that are impacting families, farmers, and businesses across our state and nation.
A few short months ago, Mississippi farmers were preparing for a bumper crop. Many expected a prosperous harvest of corn, cotton, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and rice. However, September and October brought torrential rains. Some areas of Mississippi, including parts of the farm-rich Delta, received more than 22 inches of rainfall. As a result, crops have been so badly damaged that the collective losses total nearly half a billion dollars. The devastation is so widespread that 79 of our state’s 82 counties have been declared disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Mississippi State University agriculture economists project our crop losses will reach $485 million, a figure that will exceed 30 percent of the state’s overall crop value. The MSU report noted that almost 64 percent of the state’s sweet potato crop has been wiped out. Nearly half of the state’s cotton, 44 percent of soybeans, and 41 percent of grain sorghum will also be lost this year.
These enormous losses have made it nearly impossible for many hardworking Mississippi farmers to pay their bills or provide for their families. Even worse, they are unable to prepare for planting next year, which could compound or prolong their economic hardship. Beyond the family farms and the broader agriculture community, this disaster will harm our state’s economy. The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce estimates that agriculture and forestry provides an economic impact of approximately $6 billion annually, making it the state’s largest business. This means that when farmers are hurt, we all feel the pain.

Immediate assistance
The magnitude of this problem has made it clear that additional disaster assistance is necessary. I have joined with Senator Thad Cochran to make sure every resource is in place and immediately available to help Mississippi overcome this challenge. We recently introduced a bill that will offer direct and timely disaster assistance to farmers in our state and throughout the nation who are experiencing significant crop losses. Specifically, our bill will allow for direct payment assistance to producers in counties nationwide declared “primary” disaster areas by the USDA as of Nov. 17, 2009.
In addition to the direct payments, the measure would also make $650 million available to assist specialty crop producers impacted by natural disasters. This funding would be available via payment to states. Another $42 million would be provided to aid first handlers of cottonseed. The measure also outlines $150 million in assistance to livestock producers whose operations have been adversely affected by weather-related disasters.

Cost of bill should be offset
I feel strongly that farmers and producers in Mississippi and across America badly need this assistance, which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would cost $2.19 billion. We are also mindful of the excessive and unprecedented spending that is taking place at the federal level. Our bill would not rely on new spending or add to our nation’s record $12 trillion debt. The full cost of the legislation is offset using funding already set aside in the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Furthermore, this assistance can help strengthen a key sector of our economy, the agriculture industry, and protect jobs during a time of double-digit unemployment.
Mississippi has weathered devastating storms and economic hardships in the past. With the right tools and the ready resources, we will overcome this season’s crop losses as well. I am committed to working with producers in our state to ensure agriculture remains both an economic driver and a way of life in Mississippi for generations to come.

Contact U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican who lives in Tupelo, by e-mailing him at Jordan_Stoick@wicker.senate.gov, or send letters to his Tupelo office, 2801 West Main St., Tupelo, MS 38801.

Sen. Roger Wicker