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N Carolina ag chief makes $300M-plus request on Florence aid

October 8, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s agriculture agency asked state legislators Monday for over $300 million to address cleanup and recovery after Hurricane Florence, with most going toward direct payments to farmers who lost crops and livestock to help them stay in business.

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler made the impassioned pitch to a General Assembly committee a week before the legislature reconvenes to take its second step in addressing last month’s massive rains and historic flooding.

“This is an unprecedented crisis for North Carolina agriculture. Florence was an unprecedented storm that could not have come at a worse time for agriculture,” Troxler told the agriculture oversight panel. Some key legislators, however, wanted more information before endorsing the payment program.

Troxler said without substantial state assistance, some agriculture communities won’t survive.

“We’re at a crossroads and a crisis in agriculture and it’s going to be your leadership that determines whether we lose a whole generation of farmers or whether we help this foundational industry move forward and out of this crisis,” Troxler told lawmakers.

Lawmakers set aside $50 million to match federal disaster relief funds during a special session last week. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to have his own list of monetary and policy needs for next week.

Troxler, who is also elected statewide, said $250 million of his $310 million request would go into a yet-developed Farmer Recovery Reinvestment Program. It would pay farmers with uninsured and underinsured crop, livestock and poultry losses to help them remain in agriculture.

Preliminary crop and livestock damage is at least $1.1 billion, with the economic impact at $2.8 billion, Troxler said.

He said farming took a deeper blow from Florence than what Hurricane Matthew gave it in October 2016 because the storm came while most if not all of row crops had yet to be harvested. Farmers also were dealing with recent low commodity prices, pressure from new tariffs on agriculture exports, and debt incurred when crops failed previously.

“We have to figure out a way to keep our farmers afloat. They don’t need another loan. They can’t pay back hardly what they’ve got now,” Chief Deputy Commissioner David Smith said.

Troxler said direct similar payments were made to farmers after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and following mountain floods in 2004. Legislators wanted more answers to how qualifying farmers would be chosen and what safeguards would be in place to minimize financial waste.

“Fundamentally I’m not opposed to it. I just don’t know if I have enough substance right now to just buy into it,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican and one of the House’s chief budget-writers. He said the program could set a precedent for small businesses and tourism-related activities that may seek similar help.

McGrady and fellow budget-writer Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and farmer, asked Troxler to provide more information before next week’s session. McGrady suggested the program could wait until the next scheduled return of the General Assembly in late November.

Duplin County farmer Morris Murphy told lawmakers he believed farmers would support the program in principle but approving it without details in place “could prove a government fiasco.”

Lawmakers sounded largely on board with the $60 million in other requests made by Troxler. They include funds for state or federal matches to remove debris from streams, repair farm ponds and roads and provide hay deliveries to help livestock through the winter.

The state has about $2 billion in its rainy day reserves, and this year’s state budget left $560 million unspent.

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