The New York Times reports about a promising summer washed away In Mississippi Delta.
(emphasis mine) [my comment]
November 23, 2009
In Mississippi Delta, a Promising Summer Washed Away by the Fall
By SHAILA DEWAN
LEXINGTON, Miss. — It was a long day for John Hart, a farmer in the hills just east of the Mississippi Delta.
An insurance company had decreed that, though Mr. Hart's crop of soybeans and rice was ruined, he would have to harvest it and haul it to a salvage company for pennies on the dollar. For that, Mr. Hart needed to borrow a truck that was 70 miles away. By the time he got back to his field, the sky was so dark that a shooting star whizzed across it like a thick smear of crayon.
But that was just a minor setback compared with what he and other Southern farmers have been through this year. In August, they thought they had a bumper crop — the best they had seen in years. It was the kind of crop that could put you ahead, for once. Pay off that combine.
But just as the harvest began in September, it began to rain, and it kept raining through October, normally one of the driest months here. The soybeans shriveled and blackened with mold. The rice keeled over into the mud. The cotton hardened into tight little spitballs. The sweet potatoes rotted underground. When the combines could get into the fields, they scarred them with deep ruts that will make next year's planting more expensive.
Last year, with commodity prices running at record highs, farming across the nation seemed to be bucking the recession. This year, with the rest of the country in a slow recovery from a man-made disaster, nature forced a crash of its own in the South.
"I was counting my money until September," Mr. Hart said. "I don't know whether I'm going to be able to farm another year or not."
In the pitch black of the night, Mr. Hart's hired hand and a friend, Edmond Clark, who were waiting to help, informed Mr. Hart that the dew had already come. The ruined beans were too wet to harvest that night.
For the thousandth time, Mr. Hart, 61, asked himself why he had come back home more than three decades ago from Chicago, where he was a lathe operator, to farm the family land where he grew up.
"You just keep going," he said, forced to live for the most part off his wife's salary as a nurse. "She knows that's all I like to do."
The rainy autumn has made it clear that farmers across the Delta will lose money this year. But for smaller farmers in the area like Mr. Hart, who owns or rents about 1,000 acres, and Mr. Clark, with about 600 acres, the question is whether they will be able to go on.
The rain has affected farmers in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, eastern Arkansas and parts of Louisiana. Mississippi and Georgia have requested disaster declarations from the United States Department of Agriculture, and Alabama is likely to follow suit. But help from Washington, in the form of low-interest loans, often takes a year or more to reach the farmers who need it.
Lester Spell Jr., the Mississippi commissioner of agriculture and commerce, has asked Congress and the Agriculture Department to speed up the process, saying in a news release, "I fear many of our hardworking Mississippi farmers will no longer be able to operate due to the excessive losses faced this year."
Mr. Spell cited losses of more than 40 percent of the state's soybean crop, almost 50 percent of the cotton and more than 60 percent of the sweet potatoes.
For Mr. Hart and his friends, the specter of failure has a double burden because they are among the few black farmers to have survived years of discriminatory policies by the federal Farm Services Administration, which were detailed in a successful class action lawsuit. As part of the settlement in 1999, the Agriculture Department admitted that it had for decades made it harder for black farmers to get loans.
"John grew up on the farm; I grew up on the farm," Mr. Clark said. "We've both seen our parents struggle to hold onto this land."
Mr. Clark has also been touched by the recession. Last month, his wife was laid off from her job at a day care center.
In December, the land rents are due for next year, but without a crop, the farmers may have no money to pay, and larger farmers will snap up their acreage. Mr. Clark predicted that small black farmers would be unable to return. "If I get out of it," said Mr. Clark, who rents mostly from black landowners, "this land is gone."
The threat of losing the family land is very real for black and white farmers alike, who have seen generational cycles of prosperity and bankruptcy, of new farmhouses and equipment sold on the auction block. Taylor Flowers Jr., 36, farms land in Coahoma County, where tufts of cotton pile up on the road shoulders. The land was lost by his mother's family and bought by his father's, all before his parents married.
It is not just that farming is in their blood. Farmers keep on navigating the complicated algebra of seed costs and bank loans, commodity markets and fuel prices, because there is little alternative.
"I've got a college education, I've got a degree in ag business," Mr. Flowers said. "But I don't know, if I had to quit, what I'd go do. There's not many jobs out there right now."
Homer Luckett, 54, another Coahoma farmer, said he had lost about all he could stand.
"I'm hoping that the people that I owe will let me spread it out over two or three years," he said. "I don't mind quitting, but I don't want to have to quit. I'm in debt, but I'd like to be able to farm my way out of debt."
On the dashboard of his truck, Allen C. Evans III, a farmer near Clarksdale, has a sheaf of receipts from the grain elevator, showing the damage levels of each load of soybeans: 39.9 percent, 67.9 percent, 51.8 percent. A born fretter, he is afraid to call, he said, to find out the final reckoning of the disastrous season.
"You're just kind of walking around like a zombie," Mr. Evans said, "saying, never could I have guessed that the best crop I've ever raised in my entire life - the one I never worried about - of all the crops to have taken away from us, how can this be the one?"
In the Delta, those elevator receipts have become talismans of the times. Michael Patterson, who helps pay for his farming with the proceeds from his grain hauling company, displayed one showing a farmer who brought in 1,110 bushels of soybeans, but got paid for 11. The rest were damaged.
That farmer was distraught, Mr. Patterson said.
"You don't want to be the generation," he said, "that loses the family farm."
The Calhoun County Fournal reports about bill introduced offering disaster aid to farmers.
Bill Introduced Offering Disaster Aid To Farmers
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) today introduced bipartisan legislation to offer direct and timely disaster assistance to farmers throughout the nation who are experiencing significant crop losses due to excessive rainfall this fall.
The crop disaster legislation is intended to assist farmers who have been unable to harvest crops because of excessive rain since early September. Some areas of the Mississippi Delta have received more than 15 inches of rainfall above normal. Similarly wet conditions have been reported in parts of the Midwest. The extreme precipitation has ruined crops and created field conditions unfavorable for harvesting. The bill would also offer aid to livestock producers.
"The extraordinary amounts of rain poured on the Mississippi Delta have caused significant crop losses throughout the region. Sweet potatoes, grain sorghum, soybeans and cotton harvests have been compromised to an extent that the financial survival of many producers is uncertain," said Cochran, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Existing Department of Agriculture disaster aid programs cannot provide the near-term help needed by growers. The Direct Payment mechanism, which has been used to provide assistance numerous times, is the only way for the Department of Agriculture to provide timely assistance."
"What was looking like a bumper crop for many Mississippi farmers in August has turned into enormous losses totaling nearly half a billion dollars statewide," said Wicker, an original cosponsor of the measure. "These excessive losses have made it nearly impossible for many hardworking Mississippi farmers to pay their bills or to prepare for planting next year. The hardship caused by the excessive September and October rains will be felt beyond Mississippi's agriculture community. This disaster will have a negative effect on our entire economy. The enormity of this problem has made it clear that additional disaster assistance is necessary."
In Mississippi, 79 of 82 counties have been granted primary disaster designations by the USDA based on a minimum 30 percent loss for at least one crop in each county.
Agriculture economists at Mississippi State University estimate that crop losses in Mississippi are nearing $485 million with losses exceeding 30 percent of the state's overall crop value. Based on crop reports, the MSU report noted that almost 64 percent of the state's sweet potato crop will be lost. Nearly half of the state's cotton, 44 percent of soybeans and 41 percent of grain sorghum will also be lost this year.
My reaction: Mainstream America is beginning to wake up to miserable 2009 harvest experienced by farmers.
The "biggest crop ever" reported by USDA cannot coexist with the "worst harvest ever" being reported by farmers. Recognition of damage suffered by farmers also means recognizing USDA production estimates as fraudulent. We will be seeing much higher food prices soon.