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Flooding To Test S.C. Farmers’ Insurance Planning

By Scott Miller

Before facing an unprecedented flood, South Carolina farmers faced a dramatic shift in coverage on damaged crops.

The 2014 Farm Bill eliminated direct, guaranteed payments to farmers. Now, the amount South Carolina farmers can recoup from the estimated $300 million in losses will depend on the private insurance they acquired. Experts at a Clemson University event urged growers to contact insurance agents immediately and pointed to a few government programs that might provide assistance.

“The (federal) farm programs have changed dramatically,” S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers told farmers at a field day at Clemson University Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville. “We deal with risk mitigation through insurance now. Whole different ballgame.”

Weathers called his agency’s $300 million loss estimate conservative. Standing water remains in some South Carolina fields. Even in fields where water has receded, the ground remains too saturated and soft for harvesting equipment. As crops sit, quality suffers from disease, insect damage, mold and fungus. Farmers won’t know the extent of losses until they get into fields to determine what’s salvageable, Weathers said.

In the meantime, farmers should get insurance adjusters to their properties to assess damages, said Harry Ott, South Carolina director of the Farm Service Agency, which manages government-assistance programs.

Water covers a South Carolina farm.

Water covers a South Carolina farm.

“Any direct money you are going to get is going to come through your crop insurance,” he said. “I hope everybody bought the max that they could buy. I know that’s not the case. I know some of us bought the least that we could buy.”

Farmers with irrigation systems, particularly, were unlikely to invest in insurance because the irrigation was meant to protect them from drought, Ott said.

“Most of the time when we have losses, it’s because of dry weather,” he said.

Some government programs can help, however, Ott said. The federal Emergency Conservation Program can provide farmers assistance in removing debris and repairing damage to fields, waterways and ditches. Farmers should apply with the FSA. Farmers also can apply with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for assistance in repairing damaged roadways, Ott said.

Additionally, Ott said farmers may receive payments as early as this month from the federal Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) or Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs, 2014 Farm Bill programs that replaced the guaranteed direct payments under previous federal policy. ARC and PLC may provide some revenue protection based on countywide average yields or market prices, respectively, but payments are variable and uncertain and cotton is no longer covered under the program.

ARC and PLC payments coming in October cover last year’s crop, not current crops that are in significant distress.

John Hane, owner of Middling Cotton Co., a cotton gin in St. Matthews, said some crops won’t be worth harvesting. Regrowth and seed sprouting will deteriorate cotton quality and farm income, though sunny weather should help alleviate cotton sprouting, he said. Hane suggested peanut farmers not harvest crops in fields where water is standing because peanuts will be rotten.

“It’s going to be a very trying harvest season,” Hane said.

Peanuts, meanwhile, are susceptible to mold and disease as they sit in the field, said Dan Anco, Clemson University peanut specialist. As plants weaken in the rain-soaked fields, peanuts will fall to the ground and won’t be able to be harvested at all, he said.

Farmers can apply for loans with the FSA, but Ott said the lending market will be tight.

“Even before this flood event, we were looking at cash-flow projections based on these prices and our average yields in South Carolina and it was going to be very difficult for us to make loans going into 2016,” Ott said. “We have now added insult to injury. There are going to be farmers who have no crops to sell.”

Clemson’s Edisto Research and Education Center conducted the field day to help farmers evaluate their options in the aftermath of unprecedented rainfall.

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