State senators on Wednesday began debate on a measure that would offer up to $40 million in emergency grants to farmers who were financially devastated by last October’s record rainfall and ensuing floods.
Supporters say the legislation must become law soon or else affected farmers could run out of time to benefit before the spring planting season ends, likely leaving many with no way to earn money.
But a group of Republicans led by Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, says the money should be given in no-interest loans instead of grants. Massey said he was concerned about the unprecedented nature of what legislators were doing, noting that even flooded-out home and business owners had received federal emergency loans.
“I’ve got some real philosophical problems with a grant program,” Massey said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “I am a little more program with a loan program. I think there needs to be some level of payback.”
But some of Massey’s colleague worried loans would only drive already-strained farmers deeper into debt. “We have a lot of smaller, generational farmers across this state,” State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said. “What I worry is that, in a lot of cases, they’re already leveraged to the hilt.”
Crop farmers in the Midlands and Pee Dee were slammed by the weather. The Department of Agriculture estimates $375 million in total losses from destroyed crops and the inability to plant in boggy fields over the winter.
The proposal, which passed the House earlier this year, would allow farmers who can document at least a 40 percent crop loss to apply for up to $100,000 in state assistance. The legislation would create a Farm Aid Board to consider grant requests. The Senate proposal has the board acting in an advisory role to Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, while the House makes the board largely appointed by legislative committee chairmen.
Gov. Nikki Haley has already signaled her opposition to the bill, arguing it gives farmers direct grants that were not available for any other type of business. But Weathers argues the nature of agriculture, where farmers often operate at a loss most of the year with the intention of recouping their money upon a successful harvest. But that means those farmers are then sorely affected should that harvest be a loss. They also say federal crop insurance does not cover the actual damages.
State officials had asked for emergency grants from the federal government, but money for farmers was not included, as the Governor’s Office was only willing to sign off on low-income housing grant requests.
State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, argued a new round of loans would only make farmers’ financial situation worse. “A loan does the farmer no good,” he said. “And, in fact, if we don’t pass this legislation quickly, this legislation does them no good.”