COLUMBIA - South Carolina's agriculture community wants Congress to approve emergency funds next month to help farmers financially strapped by three years of drought.
The spending package would help farmers feed livestock and offset crop losses throughout the scorched Southeast.
At stake is whether the House of Representatives will add up to $900 million in emergency money to a $75 billion budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Senators approved the extra funds before they adjourned in July, but the House did not. That means a conference committee must work out differences when Congress returns to Washington early next month.
The Senate's version of the budget bill includes $450 million for natural disasters - among them, drought, hail and frost - that affect farming, and $4 million to cover livestock loses, said Pat Wolff of the American Farm Bureau in Washington.
"We've been working real hard to get the conference committee to put the emergency money in the final bill," said Laurie C. Lawson, executive director of the South Carolina Farm Service Agency.
"Working real hard" means frequently calling members of the South Carolina Congressional Delegation and conferees to convince them that the Southeast, especially the Palmetto State, needs all the disaster money it can get. Nationwide, agriculture experts are predicting record-high yields. But that is not true in South Carolina, where the opposite is expected to happen.
Officials from the state Farm Bureau also plan to lobby Congress next month.
Some farmers say they need the emergency funding - and fast - before they go belly-up from three straight years of dry weather. The money can be used to pay farm bills, refinance debts and establish next year's crop.
U.S Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman in July declared South Carolina and Georgia agricultural disaster areas, which made farmers eligible for 3.37 percent loans to make good on drought loses. Farmers in all of Georgia's 159 counties can qualify, as can 44 counties in South Carolina. Only Horry and Dillon counties are excluded from the designation.
Mr. Lawson said very few Palmetto State farmers, however, have taken advantage of the emergency loans, but not because they don't want to apply. They cannot file until all their crops are harvested and sold, and then losses are calculated, he said.
So far, no one from Aiken County - the hardest hit in the state - has applied. And only about 25 farmers in Barnwell and Allendale counties have, according to the Farm Service Agency.
"Right now, they're so busy trying to salvage their crops that they don't have time to apply," Mr. Lawson said. "I think you'll see more interest in this issue over the fall."
Larry McKenzie of the state Farm Bureau isn't so sure.
He says most farmers probably won't apply for the loans, "because that's just another debt they'll have to repay."
Associated Press reports were used in this article.
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