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U.S. Argriculture Secretary Hears From Local Farmers

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue heard from farmers Monday afternoon in Jay following a tour of crop damage from Hurricane Sally in south Alabama and Florida. 

Following his visit to Alabama, Perdue, along with U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, stopped at Jenkins Farm in Jay and took questions from more than dozen people in the farming industry about the state of crops in Florida. 

This is the third consecutive year Northwest Florida farmers have been hit with hard times. From Hurricane Michael in 2018, a major drought in 2019, and this year’s Hurricane Sally, as well as the pandemic, the local agriculture industry has suffered.

“Most farmers have already gone through their savings, trying to pay off the debt from the last two years,” said Mark Jenkins, who runs Jenkins Farm, which has been in the family for over 100 years. “In all honesty, some of those (stimulus) payments are the only reason farmers are able to continue like they are.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would send up to $14 billion in aid to U.S. farmers who have been hit with falling prices and supply-chain disruptions from the global pandemic. Jenkins said the stimulus money helps but it doesn’t provide a long-term solution. 

“It nowhere near makes you whole,” he said. 

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Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
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The Jenkins family takes a picture with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

And after a near-Category-3 hurricane, farmers have simply lost inventory. John Davy, co-owner of Panhandle Growers, a wholesale tree farm, estimates about a $4 million loss from Hurricane Sally. 

“What we’re doing now is working hard to evaluate everything,” he said. “That’s what I was doing today; walking the fields and looking what we’re going to do to each tree and (my business partner) said we have about 90,000 trees out there.” 

Panhandle agriculture is valued at approximately $400 million, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences.  Secretary Perdue said assessment teams are looking at damage in the affected areas, but no estimate has been made. 

From his short tour of three farms Monday, Perdue said he saw crops cut in half, which is a big problem. 

“That’s not that kind of margin you want,” he said. “In agriculture they need every pound of cotton and peanuts in order to make a profit.” 

Jenkins estimated he’s lost about 50% of his cotton crop and about 25% of his peanut crop, although it’s still early to tell, he said. With a narrow harvest window for peanuts, it’s the time lost that creates the issue, he said. 

“Time is money and if you’re down a whole day, that’s a significant amount of money,” he said. 

While the USDA has its own disaster-assistance process, Congress has not made any moves on ad hoc programs that could provide additional aid. Between Hurricane Laura in Louisiana, flooding and freezing events in the Midwest — and now Hurricane Sally — Congress could see some type of program before the end of the year, Perdue said.

And agriculture is one of few issues that receives bipartisan support, said Rep. Gaetz, noting his partnership with Democrat Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried. 

Another issue is how far-spread assistance could be. While FEMA has only designated Escambia County to receive full public assistance, neighboring counties like Santa Rosa and Okaloosa are only eligible for emergency protective measures currently. Meanwhile, Escambia County residents on Tuesday were still waiting for individual assistance. 

Shannon Nixon, a farmer in Okaloosa County, said damage doesn’t always stick to county lines. 

“We’ve got just as much damage in western part of Okaloosa County; sometimes these boundaries are not as clear as counties,” he told Perdue. 

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Credit Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media
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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

According to the department of agriculture, disaster declarations must have a minimum 30% percent loss of at least one crop in the county. 

“Sometimes that’s not exactly fair,” the secretary admitted. “Our goal is to not go out and look for problems, but realistically assess where those damages are.” 

Another thing that’s not fair — how long it can take to receive federal disaster assistance. One local farmer brought up the point that disaster aid from Hurricane Michael is still coming in. But farmers can’t wait two years for help. And Perdue agreed saying some block grants just take more time. 

“There’s bureaucracy on both sides on federal and state level,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me quite a bit. Some of us farmers are to blame, too, because we don’t get all of the documentation to (the Farm Service Agency), so there’s an opportunity to go all the way around.” 

Despite another tough year for agriculture, farmers aren’t quitting. 

“Farmers are extremely resilient,” said Jenkins. “I’ve had all kinds of other jobs in addition to farming, and there’s nothing else on the face of the earth that I’d rather do than be a farmer. No matter how bad it is today, I cannot wait to get up in the morning and come back.”