Agriculture, it has been boldly stated, IS America’s oil.
I can almost guarantee if you’re reading this in Marlboro County, you’re within five minutes of a farm field of some sort. Productive agriculture is such a part of our heritage that it was once said that land here sold by the pound, not the acre. And as a nation, none of us has ever been truly famished hungry. We’ve been blessed to live in the Land of Milk and Honey, where no one should want or need. Nor really do without. Generally speaking, most of us have never encountered a true lack of food, nor endured the hardships bare shelves must bring. All thanks to agriculture. Thank a farmer; we all gotta eat.
But do you know what a farmer really is? A farmer is a guy who takes the initiative and spends the cash, in advance, in thousands, to put seeds in the ground, hoping that everything will go right and he’ll get a nice stand. Then he nurtures those plants along with fertilizer and care, eyeing the sky hoping for timely rains to help it along. He’s the guy who doffs his cap and scratches a furrowed and worried brow hoping that the weather forecasters are wrong and that the last few weeks of dry, blistering bright and hot weather will soon break, or faces the expense of irrigating a crop. The guy who prays that a summer thunderstorm passes over that parched dry unirrigated 40-acre patch that was looking so bad yesterday, while also hoping that the same storm will not bring crop-destroying hail or wind. The guy who, due to his diligence and the Grace of God, thankfully produces a crop, and then has to hope that lingering late season rains don’t hamper his harvest, or reduce the value of his crop, all while balancing marketing decisions as the price for his product continuously fluctuates, sometimes radically, as the crop ripens.
To me, farmers are the biggest gamblers on the planet. If I farmed I’d just fly to Vegas, have a couple stiff drinks, and, in four hands of blackjack, know what kind of year I’d had.
Anyway, what did 2015 provide SC farmers in return for their positive persistence, financial investment and weeks of worry? Well, a late spring freeze that stunted or killed fruit buds proved the first thing to cause hopes to dwindle, then drought conditions developed over the summer as row crops of all types fought to produce, at best, reduced yields, followed by a wet late season, topped off with historic flooding that either totally destroyed crops or severely limited production. In short, it was a bust. According to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, the total agricultural loss due to freeze, drought, and flood for 2015 approached $600 million. All many SC farmers got last year was fuel bills and invoices from agri-suppliers. And, now, a bleak start to 2016.
And it matters. Tremendously. I worked for agri-business giant Archer Daniels Midland, the “Supermarket to the World,” for 17 years as a grain merchant or terminal manager/operator. Thus, I spent a lot of days working in or visiting local grain elevators, meeting farmers from Mobile, Alabama to Memphis, Tennessee. Back in the day, in some years I played a role in the buying of 15+ million bushels of southeastern grain: corn, wheat, and soybeans. And that was really just chump change to the Big Boys out in the Great Midwest. So while I didn’t grow up on a farm, and despite the fact I’ve never even cranked a combine harvester, I do understand explicitly what exactly is required in order to need one. I say all that to say this: when it comes to agribusiness, I know of what I speak. And folks our farmers are in trouble, dire trouble in many cases; 2015 drove many to the brink. It reminds of dark days during my years in the grain business, when several farmers I’d traded with, good men all, committed suicide, when, due to matters beyond their control and despite their best efforts, they were forced to watch as the generations-long held family farm slowly went under. That is how brutally cold that reality can get. For many, farming is not just a job, it’s a passion.
And now hope of fiscal relief for our already financially strained SC farmers—and, even more importantly, hopes of getting a critical-to-some 2016 off to a good start—is tied up in governmental haggling. While it should be a non-issue, as evidenced by the SC House’s unanimous passage of a bill that would make $40 million in specifically-targeted aid from state surplus funds available to farmers to keep operations afloat, the measure is currently under debate in the SC Senate and appears to be in danger of being tied to or even forced to compete for those same funds with infrastructure repair projects.
Additionally, care must be taken to ensure that any measure directly assisting farmers be carefully framed to avoid possible veto by Governor Nikki Haley who has expressed her belief that any disaster relief funds be equally allocated to all who were affected. Haley contends farmers should not be treated differently than other flood-impacted businesses in South Carolina, despite the fact that, unlike retailers, farmers cannot clean up, restock and re-open for business. Bless your heart, Governor, but that’s not how farming works, ma’am. Every crop is a once-a-year shot; there are no do-overs. Haley has also noted that crop insurance should be sufficient for affected farmers, even though the reality is those with both the foresight and means to do so, buying the very best crop insurance possible, could not possibly recoup via insurance claims all the dollars expended throughout the 2015 season on seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, expensive diesel fuel to power equipment, and labor to assist in farm operations.
Even more disheartening is the fact that federal monies could almost certainly already be being accessed had Haley been more insistent on behalf of SC farmers, instead of merely asking that federal claims be processed as quickly as possible. To say that I am discouraged at the current disarray of bureaucratic horse manure that creates this kind of logjam is a gross understatement.
Folks, I’m disappointed. No, I’m dismayed that farm funding is even an issue; it should be near the top of everyone’s list. I’m very sympathetic toward those, both commercial and residential, who suffered loss due to floodwaters; and I’m a huge fan of parity in funding distribution—in most cases. But not when it comes to agriculture. You cannot compare farming to retail or residential or even infrastructure concerns; it’s simply apples and oranges. Vote “Yes” on farm funding, whatever it takes, then move on to argue about something else, something of far less importance.
Enough is enough. Put aside party platforms or political hopes or promises or ANYTHING that precludes expediting getting real dollars to South Carolina’s farmers so they can take a breath, then take advantage of this warm stretch and get busy feeding us. And do it yesterday. Mother Nature will not wait.
How far from our heritage must we go?