Farm crisis advocate Scott Marlow has helped North Carolina farmers recover after 17 hurricanes, including Hurricane Florence this month.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young talks with Marlow (@ScottRAFI), senior policy specialist for the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, about what he’s hearing from farmers about crop loss and recovery in the storm’s wake.
“This is going to take years for us to get past,” he says. “It’s not going to happen in a couple of months. It’s going to keep going long after the attention has gone someplace else.”
On the damage Florence did to farms in North Carolina
“It’s very extensive … Most of our peanut crop and sweet potato crop was still in the field. Both of them are underground, so sitting underwater for long periods of time is very, very damaging. Most of our cotton crop was still in the field. Most of the soybean crop was still in the field. A pretty large percentage of tobacco was still in the field. The winds that came in with the hurricane is one thing — it blows crops down, it lays them down — but the flooding is even more damaging and even more complete a damage to the crops and makes them unharvestable.”
On what he advises farmers to do in the wake of natural disasters to ensure they receive their crop loss returns, and the difficulties of this process
“One of the big messages that we get out to folks is that the first thing that they need to do is to document … all of the disaster losses, because government programs often can come online a year, even two years, after the disaster to pay for losses, but if they haven’t documented them, they can’t get access to those programs. Disaster recovery for anyone requires them to be at their most-organized best, at a point where their life and their brain and everything is at its worst.
“And so, there’s a whole series of different programs. They often have different deadlines and different applications. They have to navigate between FEMA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Small Business Administration. They have to know which agency covers which damage, and there are real differences there.
“There are some great people who are out there, even as we speak, helping people evacuate, helping people in shelters and doing that. What we’re working on getting in place is the longer-term recovery for exactly that. It’s sitting down with people, working through the paperwork with them, helping go through the application process. It’s very important, because these deadlines are to start coming up 30, 60, 90 days after the disaster, and it’s very difficult to be that kind of organized and get all your paperwork together. It’s hard to document how much production that you had when your file cabinets are a waterlogged mess.”
On the differences in returns farmers receive depending on the crops they grow
“The main federal program for production losses is federal crop insurance. It’s subsidized by the taxpayer, it’s available to farmers and like all insurance, the larger the commodity or the larger the crop, the more they’re able to provide effective insurance.
“Now, I gotta be clear, just like your health insurance or your car insurance, that doesn’t mean that those insurance policies make those farmers whole. It means that they have something that they know they’re going to get a certain percentage of their return back. They’re still going to struggle, they’re still going to have a hard time, and the returns on those commodities are very thin.
“If you’re doing something specialty — and increasingly consumers are looking for local or specialty-raised — that’s a much higher value. So the farmer’s going to invest more in producing it, and then that product is going to have a higher value in the marketplace … Well, for those farmers, the prices that are set in the insurance policies aren’t going to come anywhere near the value of their product in the marketplace. The value of that product can be two or three times.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years, especially in North Carolina with the reduction of tobacco production, is farmers moving into very high-value, often direct-market sales to restaurants, sales to high-value grocery stores … Those are the exact farmers who are going to have the most difficulty recovering, because the disaster programs are just not geared for that type of production, for that value, to really address those kinds of losses.
“What we see is that for the large-scale producers, they’re going to have a tough time, but they’re going to get on through. For those smaller-scale and mid-scale folks, who are selling something higher value, it’s going to be very, very difficult. They’re just not going to have the same safety net.”
On the lack of financial safety nets for farmers who grow hemp
“This was a year where we had a significant jump in [hemp] production. A lot of small and mid-scale farms really got into it, seeing that it’s something that they want to go after — a new market. But one of the important pieces is that that’s a crop that is completely off of the safety net. There is no insurance for it. There’s no backup for those production losses.
“It can be very expensive to put in. Folks who’ve taken that risk are really looking at major losses. Those who had it in the field were hearing losses of anywhere from half to all of the hemp that was out there, and there’s really not any place that they can get those losses covered. They’re going to have to absorb that.”
On the typical process of foreclosure farms undergo after natural disasters
“The pattern that we see is that folks will pull it all together to get through and go another year and get through this time. But what a disaster does is it takes all of the resilience out of the farm. So all of their savings, all their retirement, anything that they had extra, everything is gone, and they’ve spent so much time and they spent so much money trying to recover. And so, what happens is as they go forward, they can’t afford to stub their toe.
“We were already in a very, very low-price commodities situation. Nationally, farm income is down by 50 percent. Our hotline already had a very full caseload before we hit the hurricane. So as they go forward, what we see frequently is that the foreclosures and the problems will really kick in two years, three years, even four years down the line, after the attention on the hurricane or the attention on the disaster has gone away.”
On how the North Carolina farming community is recovering
“We tend to look at people as either helpers or victims, and I was talking to a farmer yesterday who is a member of his volunteer fire department. He’s looking at having lost 700 acres of peanuts, but he’s out doing water rescues this week. So it’s really important as people get back on their feet that you know the folks who are going through this, they’re all going through it together, and people who are helping are also going through it.
“As we go forward over time, we know that this is going to play out and be tough in terms of mental health, in terms of people’s physical health, in terms of the resilience of their households and their farms, and it’s just a very important time for people to stick together and take care of each other and be in it and take care of each other for the long haul.”