Farm assistance sought

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gov. Phil Bredesen has requested a federal designation of natural disaster for agriculture for Marshall and 27 other counties as a result of drought and excessive heat during the growing season.

"We hauled probably 40 percent more water this summer than a normal year, so it was an extremely dry summer," according to Bob Hopkins, director of the Marshall County Emergency Management Agency.

Rick Skillington, the agricultural extension agent here, said the May flood delayed planting.

"Then, because of the drought, we got one good cutting of hay," Skillington said. "We usually get two cuttings. Some varieties can give four. Because of drought there was some hay fed as early as September and the yield on crops -- corn, soybeans -- were down to less than half a yield or less.

"The biggest question I have," Skillington continued, "is: Next spring how much grass will we have in these pastures because the stock ate it into the ground; how much of it will have to be replanted?"

Bedford, Bradley, Carter, Claiborne, Cocke, Dyer, Fayette, Hamilton, Henry, Hickman, Jefferson, Lauderdale, Lewis, Marion, Marshall, Moore, Perry, Polk, Rhea, Rutherford, Sequatchie, Sevier, Sullivan, Tipton, Unicoi, Union, Washington and Williamson counties are included in Bredesen's appeal to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

A secretarial disaster designation would make farmers in these and adjoining counties eligible to apply for low-interest loans and supplemental farm payments through their local USDA Farm Service Agency. Farmers report crop losses ranging from 30 to 50 percent, and higher in some cases for corn, soybeans, cotton, hay and specialty crops such as pumpkins and nursery stock. Livestock producers report feeding winter stocks of hay earlier than normal this year due to very poor pasture conditions.

"We're thankful that he's attempting to get this for us," County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said Monday afternoon. "It would mean more revenue ... for those who've lost crops and pasture. It will help replace some of those funds that would have come from the farm.

"I think the drought this summer and fall hurt us worse than the flood," said Liggett, a farmer himself who was president of the county Farm Bureau before he was elected in 2006. "Pasture didn't mature because of the lack of water.

"There were a lot of cattle farmers who had to start feeding hay six to eight weeks before they might normally have started," the mayor said. "It cuts into your winter reserves of forage. You have to replace it by purchasing more."

Bredesen said, "This has been an unusual year for farmers across the state, beginning with the May flood, continuing with extreme heat during the summer and ending the growing season in a drought. Farmers are in a tough business, made even more difficult by the uncertainty of the weather. I'm glad to make this request for some much needed federal assistance."

Bredesen's request follows a USDA designation of natural disaster earlier this year for 14 counties due to drought. Those counties include Benton, Bledsoe, Blount, Carroll, Greene, Knox, Loudon, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, Roane, Sumner, Warren and Weakley.

"With the exception of cotton, overall crop production is below average this season as we've seen yields vary from county to county and from farm to farm," state Agriculture Commissioner Terry J. Oliver said. "Federal assistance will be important for farmers who are now looking ahead to next year's crop and hopeful for better prices, but rising input costs continue to put a strain on the farm economy."

According to the Tennessee Field Office of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, the final seasonal survey for the week ending Nov. 7 showed two-thirds of pastures statewide rated in poor to very poor condition.