Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

TOP STORY >> Lincoln says she can help farmers

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Farmers and rural officials told Sen. Blanche Lincoln just how tough things are on the farms and in the towns of her home state and asked for help Monday afternoon, when she convened her first field hearing as the powerful new chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nu-trition and Forestry Committee at the Clinton Presidential Center.

Lincoln is the first Arkansan to chair that committee and the first woman.

Less than 48 hours after casting the deciding 60th vote to allow debate on the Senate floor of a sweeping health-care reform bill, she opened the hearing on revitalizing rural America, saying the University of Arkansas’ Division of Agriculture reports the state’s crop losses from flooding and poor weather conditions are more than $300 million, not including lost wages of agriculture-related jobs of more than $80 million.

“An issue of particular importance to our state’s economy right now is the hardships many of our agricultural producers are seeing as a result of recent excessive rainfall and flooding. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2009 has been our wettest year in 115 years of record keeping.

“Obviously, there is never a good time for us to suffer these kinds of losses, especially in an industry that is the economic engine of rural Arkansas,” Lincoln said. “However, given the current recession, it is difficult to imagine this flooding occurring at a worse time.

“As chairman of this committee, I will continue to be a strong advocate for supporting the thousands of jobs and hundreds of rural small businesses in Arkansas that agriculture production provides. In addition, I know improving our rural infrastructure is also critical for our farms and rural communities to thrive.

She cited affordable housing, rural broadband affordability and safe, reliable drinking water as important priorities.

$600 MILLION IMPACT

Arkansas Farm Bureau president Randy Veach testified that the total economic impact this year of losses from flood, drought and hail could reach $600 million.

He warned that any disaster program should include not only row crops, livestock, poultry growers and fruit and vegetable producers, but also timber losses and poultry plant closings.

He said cotton losses were estimated at $115 million, $127 million in soybeans and $50 million in rice, with value-added losses totaling almost $162 million. That includes loss of jobs and wages, loss of millions in rice, corn and sorghum processing and $8.3 million loss in cotton ginning.

Some producers had to plant three times to get a crop this year, he said.

Another issue as a result of the wet year will be the “reduced availability of quality seed for next year’s plantings,” Veach said.

“That will also result in higher …costs.”

JOBS FIRST

“Creating jobs and putting our economy back on the right track is my No. 1 priority,” Lincoln said. “With over 100,000 Arkansans now unemployed, families across our state are struggling to make ends meet. Together with your help and input we will use this chairmanship to put people back to work and reverse the devastating effects our ailing economy has had on Arkansans.

“When our nation faces difficult economic times, rural Americans are often the first to feel the impact and the last to recover. With 48 percent of our state’s population living in rural areas, it is critical that this committee focus on providing our rural communities with the tools they need to strengthen and grow their economies.

“The prolonged downturn in housing construction has devastated the solid-wood sector of the forest products industry,” said Allen Bedell, chairman of the Arkansas Forestry Commission. “The downturn in the global economy has negatively affected the pulp and paper industry.”

TAX BREAKS NEEDED

He told Lincoln of the recent layoffs and temporary or permanent closures of paper, wood and plywood mills in the state.

He suggested help to the industry through the Small Business Administration, and tax breaks for homebuyers or rebates for buying lumber.

He also asked for relaxation of laws limiting the size and weight of trucks on the highways.

“When we have turmoil in the grain markets, the result is almost always higher feed prices for those involved in animal agriculture,” said Tom Jones, a livestock producer and Farm Bureau board member.

He reported that about 450 poultry producers have been affected by closure of processing plants in El Dorado and Clinton.

He said that most did not get contracts with other poultry companies. The result is that millions of dollars in farm loans remain with no income to service the debt, he said. That means more bankruptcies, especially among younger farm families that don’t have as many established assets.

OPEN FOREIGN MARKETS

He asked Lincoln to work to get markets reopened or partially reopened in Japan and Korea for U.S. beef products.

“I don’t have a single grower not impacted (by flooding and drought), said Michael Jones, president of the Merchants and Farmers Bank in Dumas. He said if farmers pay off their crop loans, some won’t have enough money left to make it through the winter and plant a new crop.

“The bank’s been here 100 years, 30 years with me, and we’re never seen such flooding. In October there were four days it didn’t rain in Desha County,” he said.

“I would appeal to you to ensure that the Farm Services of America offices are staffed adequately to handle the volume of work,” said Jones. The FSA offers loan guarantees that he said were critical to the survival of the producers and the security of the lenders.

“Young growers in fruits and vegetables have not built up reserves,” said Jeremy Gillam, a blueberry and muscadine grape producer from Judsonia.

He said many need aid in the short term to bridge weather-related problems. Many don’t qualify for crop insurance or can’t afford it, he said, suggesting it be made more available and cheaper.

In Arkansas, those growing fruits and vegetables are a small but growing segment among farmers. He said pumpkin growers saw their crops rot in the wet fields, and that affected local festivals and pumpkin patches, part of what is now called agri-tourism.

OTHERS TESTIFIED

Lincoln and her agriculture committee staff also heard panelists on rural infrastructure.

They were Lawrence Mc-Cullough, state director of USDA Rural Development; Sam Walls, CEO of Arkansas Capital Corporation; Dennis Sternberg, executive director of the Arkansas Rural Water Association at Lonoke, and Teddy Gardner, executive director of South Arkansas Community Development.

The members of the panel on community and economic development initiatives were: Annett Pagan, program director of U.S. programs at Winrock International; Robert Cole, director of East Arkansas Enterprise Community; Calvin King, executive director of Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, and John Squires, CEO, Com-munity Resource Group.