This year’s weather has been a nightmare and lots of farms in my area are struggling. What help is there available for farmers struck by disaster?

July 2011

Dear Farm Aid,

This year’s weather has been a nightmare and lots of farms in my area are struggling. What help is there available for farmers struck by disaster?

Sincerely,
Lyle R.

From devastating tornadoes to the Texas drought, and from the Southwest’s wildfires to floods along the Mississippi, Missouri and Souris Rivers, not a region in the country has been spared by the wave of natural disasters sweeping America. Our family farmers have been hit especially hard as they endure devastating losses this growing season, leaving much uncertainty as we enter the 2011 harvest.

While this year’s events are especially severe, disasters are generally a matter of when, not if, for family farmers. The whims of Mother Nature have always challenged farming—a business that relies on agreeable weather conditions, available water, healthy soil and many other variables to produce our food. But as farming becomes an increasingly expensive and debt-strapped profession, natural disasters risk not only one year’s crop, but the farm business altogether.

Natural Disasters: Why We Care

Among the stresses that come with disasters is the severe financial burden they place on family farms. Already this year, farmers impacted by drought, fire, flooding and other disasters have replanted their fields several times, lost animals in their herds, paid for expensive repairs and sunk more money and resources—including inputs like seeds, fertilizers and fuels—to keep their farms afloat. In a sector where it’s already difficult to turn a profit, natural disasters can make irreparable cuts in already hurting farm budgets. Some predict that this year’s disasters could become as devastating to farmers as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.[1]

In addition, natural disasters send ripple effects throughout the national economy. The recent flooding along the Missouri River, for example, threatens some of the most productive farmland in the U.S.—much of it devoted to corn and soybeans. With corn and soybean prices near historically high levels, crop losses could raise prices even higher. What’s more, the heavy use of corn and soybeans in livestock feed, processed foods and supplemental fuel sources leaves consumer prices from the grocery store to the gas pump primed to climb upward.

Disasters also exacerbate environmental problems and leave ecosystems vulnerable to collapse. For example, the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is rapidly expanding due to soil erosion and runoff related to this year’s extreme weather. Recent estimates project these growing algal blooms will cost the U.S. economy $82 million each year, affecting everything from the Gulf’s fishing industry to public health.[2] Importantly, the same farm practices that make our food healthier can also help mitigate damage from extreme weather. For example, on-farm soil conservation practices and nutrient management make land less susceptible to runoff (and also pack our food with more nutrients!). These kinds of practices help buffer soil loss and help farmers be more resilient after a disaster.

Natural disasters also place a dramatic emotional toll on farmers and their families. Year after year, Farm Aid fields phone calls on our 1-800-FARM-AID hotline from distraught farm families who struggle to remain hopeful when their fields are flooded, their cattle thirsty or their farm home damaged in the wake of nature’s fury. In its own way, farming is a tremendous act of faith—it is a hope that planting a seed in the soil and doing all one can to nurture it will produce a crop worthy of a meal (and capable to supporting a farm family) in several months’ time.

Where to turn

A number of federal programs support farmers in times of disaster. Disaster payments, crop insurance and other risk management programs administered by the federal government are critical to the financial health of family farms. While they can never completely compensate for the economic, emotional and physical damage caused by a natural disaster, they can do a great deal to help farmers recover.

Unfortunately, not only are federal disaster programs chronically under-funded, many farmers find them entirely inaccessible. For example, farmers doing innovative work in direct markets, organic agriculture and value-added production are often ineligible for crop insurance or unable to receive reimbursement of their lost crops at their market price. So while there are a number of programs available to support farmers following natural disasters, more equitable access to a support system forallfamily farmers remains a serious obstacle.

What Farm Aid is Doing

Since its inception in 1985, Farm Aid has taken a role in supporting farmers impacted by disasters, bolstering the network of on-the-ground organizations that help family farmers recover and advocating for fair disaster policies and programs at the national scale. At its core, our disaster work is about keeping family farmers on the land, because they are our best guarantee for a production system that delivers good food for all.

In 1993, Farm Aid officially established theFamily Farm Disaster Fund to help farm families impacted by natural disasters. The fund helps farm families cover family living expenses in times of crisis, often working with churches and service agencies to reach the farmers most in need. It also supports emergency hotlines and the critical work of farm advocates—unsung heroes who work with farmers on a one-on-one basis to provide financial counseling, business planning advice, legal help and emotional support as farmers deal with tremendously difficult financial situations, often following disasters. This year, thanks to your help, we’ve raised and distributed $23,500 to family farmers impacted by disasters throughout the country. (Please help us reach even more family farmers bydonating to our Family Farm Disaster Fund!).

Throughout the years, Farm Aid has also organized relief efforts—such as emergency haylifts for livestock farmers in drought regions who cannot feed their cattle. Farm Aid President Willie Nelson has often led these on-the-ground efforts, which not only aid farmers and raise their profile nationally, but also build solidarity and support between family farmers in different regions of the country. Farm Aid has also sponsored trainings, in partnership with organizations like the Farmers Legal Action Group, to help farmers navigate the difficult path to apply for federal assistance after a declared disaster.

In this belt-tightening budget era, heated debates around farm programs are already bubbling over. The 2012 Farm Bill will be crafted under national debt concerns and slashed budgets, making increases in disaster funds difficult. But the stakes could not be higher: the scientific community anticipates increased frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters from climate change, while population growth and the twin health concerns of hunger and obesity call for increased availability of healthy food from family farmers. That will take a strong network of federal disaster programs that support allof America’sfamily farmers.

Sources

1. Severson, Kim, Johnson, Kirk. (2011). “Drought spreads pain from Florida to Arizona.”The New York Times. July 11, 2011.

2. Olmstead, Julia. 2011. On dead zones, flooding and money.Think Forward: Where Global and Local meet Sustainability.Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy. Minneapolis, Minnesota. June 21, 2011.

Further Reading

  • To read more about ways farmers combat soil erosion, take a look at ourFarmer Hero profile of Gail Fuller, a Kansas farmer who practices no-till crop farming and cattle grazing. Kansas loses five to ten tons of soil per acre per year on average, but with a no-till system, only about a half a ton of soil is lost per acre. He says, "We've lost up to almost half of our top soil in the last 40 years. If we keep going like that my great grandchildren will have nothing to farm."

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