When extension agent Charles Davis visits farms, he gets one question over and over again – when will South Carolina farmers start getting aid for crops damaged in last year’s floods?
Finally, Davis and his fellow agents have the paperwork. The state on Friday began taking applications for $40 million in aid approved by lawmakers in May over Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto.
The aid supplements crop insurance. It only covers 20 percent of losses from October’s floods and subsequent months of waterlogged fields, and no farmer can get more than $100,000. But that extra money will be vital to farmers who have tapped out their credit with months to go before getting paid for this year’s crops.
“We lost a heck of a lot of money in a short period of time,” said Davis, the Clemson University extension agent for Calhoun and Richland counties.
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Up to 24 inches of rain fell over two days in parts of South Carolina. Much of the state’s cotton and peanut crop had not been harvested and simply rotted in the stagnant water. Repeated heavy rains in the weeks following the floods kept fields too wet to plant winter crops, taking another revenue stream from farmers and eventually causing nearly $400 million in damage, state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said.
The application for state aid is available on the Department of Agriculture’s website. Farmers must have documented proof of their losses, show they plan on farming again and sign a sworn statement.
Claims will be accepted through Aug. 15. If farmers request more than $40 million, the awards will be prorated, Weathers said.
Officials are fanning out across the state to help farmers fill out their applications. The first meeting is Friday at a barbecue restaurant in Kingstree. They will meet at community centers, farm sheds, restaurants and extension offices from Dillon to St. George to Blackville throughout July.
South Carolina farmers saw more than just flooding disasters in 2015. The summer was hot and dry enough to wipe out another round of crops that aren’t included in the farm aid awards, Weathers said.
The farm aid bill turned into one of the biggest political battles of 2016. Dozens of farmers packed the State House after Haley vetoed the bill, and just five of 156 House members and senators voted to sustain the veto.
Weathers only briefly mentioned the political fight Thursday. “It is simply designed to give them a lifeline,” Weathers said. “This is not a bailout.”
Haley said Thursday she still thinks farmers should not have been treated differently and given aid not available to other small businesses that lost everything. But she said she still wishes the state’s farmers the best.
“It’s not that I don’t want the farmers to be successful. I do. But I am still driving down the street and seeing businesses that have never opened back up again,” Haley said.
As far as 2016 goes, farmers have had a good year. Just enough rain has fallen at the right time, and there were no late freezes. The summer is starting a little dry, but it isn’t anything a well-timed rainstorm couldn’t help, Davis said.
“Right now the crops are looking pretty good. I don’t want to jinx it by saying they are looking wonderful,” Davis said. “But anything is better than last year.”