South Carolina farmers devastated by last fall's flooding could get up to $40 million in state aid to stay afloat under legislation advanced Wednesday to the House floor.
The legislation approved 21-0 by the Ways and Means Committee allows farmers in disaster-declared counties to apply for grants of up to $100,000 each. The grants could equal 20 percent of a farmer's total loss.
"We can't make them whole," Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said of his bill. "This may not be everything they want but it's something to keep the industry going."
Last October's torrential rains wiped out $330 million worth of crops at harvest time. Farmers lost an additional $45 million because they couldn't plant winter crops in bogs, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Those figures don't include losses from last year's spring freeze and summer drought.
Farmers essentially lost their entire inventory after incurring a year's worth of expenses, leaving many unable to pay operating loans that came due Dec. 31. Hopefully, next season's harvest will be profitable, but many family farms won't survive in the meantime, said State Farm Bureau President Harry Ott.
About 30 percent of farm loans through the Farm Service Agency in South Carolina are already delinquent, he said.
"We were totally exposed and had an event nobody could plan for," Ott, the House's former minority leader, told the committee. "The only way out of this quagmire is to put a crop in the ground and plant it forward."
The measure is meant to provide a revenue bridge so farmers aren't forced to literally sell the farm. It specifies the grant can't be used to pay down debt. Instead, it must be spent on seeds, fertilizer and other expenses toward planting this year's crops.
"It helps them on the back side and helps grow the economy," since farmers will be spending money that keeps local supply stores open, said Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce. "It's not going to do any good just to pay off bankruptcy debt."
Legislators said some have already given up on farming. Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, said that includes a sixth-generation farmer in his area.
Legislators in both chambers and parties have said the state needs to help farmers survive.
In December, hundreds of farmers packed the Statehouse to beg Gov. Nikki Haley to ask for federal money to offset losses. But the Republican governor has refused, saying farmers shouldn't be treated differently than other businesses beyond what's already available, such as subsidized flood insurance.
But GOP Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers has said even farmers who paid for the most insurance available didn't recoup enough money to even cover what it cost them to plant the crops. Flood insurance for farms is far more complicated than insurance for homes and other businesses, and a change in the last federal farm bill means farmers are no longer eligible for other disaster aid, he's explained.
The bill's $40 million would come from state surpluses, so the money would not have to wait on the budget process.
But that doesn't mean help will come quickly. The House will take up the bill in two weeks, following next week's furlough. The bill could then stall in the Senate. If it passes, a board the measure creates to evaluate applications and dole out the grants has 20 days to hold its first meeting.
Ott said ideally the money would be available in March, when corn planting begins. But supply stores should be willing to extend short-term credit to farmers if they know the money's coming, he said.