Pick-up trucks flooded the parking lot at the UGA Conference Center as farmers walked into the auditorium hoping to hear good news from Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Ag. Commissioner Gary Black. The meeting was hosted by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
The pair flew into Tifton by helicopter to discuss disaster relief efforts happening in Washington D.C. to help farmers affected by Hurricane Michael. Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue and U.S. Congressmen Austin Scott, Sanford Bishop and Buddy Carter joined the discussion through a video conference call.
The state’s agriculture industry suffered a loss in the following areas: peanuts, poultry, soybeans, dairy, pecans, greens, timber, vegetables and fruit. The University of Georgia estimates a $2.5 billion loss for Georgia agriculture, including a $780 million loss in timber alone.
Senator Perdue used his time to make an apology to the farmers in the audience, “I want to apologize to all the farmers out there in this meeting. Washington was here and saw it firsthand after the storm and they told us they had our backs.” Perdue has talked with President Trump and was assured of his full support to push the legislation through the senate and congress.
Kemp said “I’m all for helping everybody else that needs it after a disaster—whether that’s California after a wildfire, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina. We have helped our neighbors when they needed help, and I called Governor Ivey after the devastating storm that hit Lee County and offered our support. That offer still stands, but we need our help too.”
A day after the deadly tornados swept through the state, Kemp received a phone call from the president. The governor used the conversation as an opportunity to express the urgency in expediting the aid to the southeast.
The Georgia House of Representatives enacted House Bill 4EX, which allows eligible taxpayers to apply for the Timber Tax Credit from the Georgia Department of Revenue (GADOR). The program is limited to the 28 counties, including Tift, in the governor’s disaster declaration area. The tax credit should assist farmers in offsetting economic losses from Hurricane Michael.
Initially, a $1 billion aid package failed to meet the approval of President Donald Trump because the deal included more funding for Puerto Rico who suffered crippling destruction from Hurricane Maria.
Senator Isakson weighed in on the issue concerning Puerto Rico. “Puerto Rico is not a state, they suffered terrible damage, but they also have a crime-ridden government. Their electrical power grid has more power stolen off it than people who live there that pay for it.” He then commended President Trump, for doing everything he can to save taxpayers money.
Congressman Scott pointed out the silver lining about the difference between the original legislatures and the current. “The original legislation was drafted at 1 billion dollars. That’s not 1 billion dollars for Georgia, that’s one billion dollars for the entire southeast and for California’s wildfires.”
Scott continued, “We are much better off with a $3 billion appropriation passing this month than we would have been with a $1 billion appropriation passing in November or December.”
An agribusiness owner asked if destroyed warehouses and facilities would be covered in the legislation. Bishop weighed in by saying, “The Small Business Administration has a part to play in terms of supporting agribusiness and including in the overall disaster package resources to deal with that.
“Along with that,” Bishop continued, “The Community Facilities Program has $150 million for grants to facilities and services that are essential to our rural communities. That entire package will be there to help rehabilitate and support our rural communities and that includes agribusinesses.”
In late February, Perdue and Isakson introduced a bill to the Senate for $13.6 billion in relief efforts to places affected by natural disasters. The bill has support from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. The senators from Georgia were promised by McConnell that the bill would receive floor time before the last Monday in March so that it can be passed.
Members of the audience expressed appreciation for Kemp and Black meeting in person with farmers amid the General Assembly session happening in Atlanta. Though appreciative, members expressed their exhaustion from dealing with the relief delays.
Bishop explained why farmers are having trouble securing operational loans for the rapidly approaching planting season. “Time is of the essence,” said Bishop. “They’ve got to make sure that arrangements are made for last year’s operational loans to be satisfied so that lenders will know what will be coming forward so that everybody can make plans.”
Congressman Carter praised Bishop and Scott for spearheading this legislation. “Especially thank these two guys [Scott and Bishop] in the house. It was a team effort in the house, but these two guys were the leaders.”
Despite support from the President and Senate, it could take the house of representatives several weeks to finalize the aid package. David Bishop, a farmer from Hawkinsville, worried—despite having disaster relief—if he and other farmers would benefit after the losses brought on by the storm.
Despite justified concerns with the timeliness of receiving relief after a five-month wait, the audience gave their politicians respect and support to continue fighting on their behalf.
Future meetings will be held in South Georgia to discuss more information about the Timber Tax Credit from the GADOR. The closest meeting will be March 13, at the UGA Cooperative Extension Office in Cordele at 6:30 p.m.