Local farmers with damage due to remnants of Hurricane Michael last fall understandably were bewildered and angered when they realized a state disaster aid program included several area counties but not Wilkes.
It didn’t make sense because Wilkes appeared to have enough damage for inclusion in the Agricultural Disaster Program of 2018, developed and administered by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and funded with $240 million from the state’s “rainy day fund.”
The one-time program assists farmers with crop and livestock losses related to Hurricanes Florence or Michael in the fall of 2018. Remnants of Hurricane Michael had a considerably greater impact than Florence on agriculture in Wilkes and other area counties.
Corn, grain, soybean, tobacco, grain and forage crops, as well as apples and peach orchards, were damaged here. Corn and other crops in bottomlands were flooded and corn was blown over by strong wind. Excessive moisture was a problem even where flooding didn’t occur.
So, local farmers called their state legislators to complain and ask why Wilkes was omitted from this disaster aid program. As the only legislator who lives in Wilkes, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro fielded most of these calls. Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy and Sen. Deanna Ballard of Blowing Rock also heard from local farmers.
Elmore’s 94th District includes the most heavily populated areas of Wilkes and all of Alexander County, while Steven’s 90th House District includes the rest of Wilkes and much of Surry County. Ballard represents all of Wilkes in the 45th Senate District.
It turned out that paperwork documenting crop damage and providing other information required by the NCDA for a county to be eligible for any of the $240 million wasn’t submitted for Wilkes. Iredell County also initially wasn’t among the 70-plus counties declared eligible for aid through the program, apparently for a similar reason.
Elmore and Stevens were therefore joined by Rep. John Fraley and Rep. Rena Turner of Iredell County in co-sponsoring a House bill adding Wilkes and Iredell the disaster designation and extending the deadline for farmers in those counties to submit their individual applications for disaster aid. Ballard and Sen. Vickie Sawyer of Iredell County co-sponsored an identical bill in the Senate.
The companion bills were filed in February by the co-sponsoring legislators, all Republicans, and were unanimously approved. Meanwhile, paperwork needed but not initially submitted on behalf of Wilkes and Iredell was sent by U.S. Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices for the two counties.
In early March, announcements were made telling farmers in Wilkes and Iredell that their counties had been added to the list of counties with a disaster designation and that they had until midnight March 23 to complete applications for aid through the Agricultural Disaster Program of 2018. Farmers also had to file crop acreage reports with FSA offices. These are already required for participation in certain federal ag programs.
A spokesman for the FSA office in Wilkesboro said about 25 Wilkes farmers submitted applications for portions of the $240 million.
An NCDA spokesman said the department has finished reviewing nearly all applications received and over 7,000 checks have been mailed, the first of two some farmers will get. Some other farmers are yet to receive their first checks. Most apparently will end up getting compensation equal to about 20 percent of their loss.
The cause of the breakdown that made additional legislation necessary for Wilkes and Iredell wasn’t made clear, but it possibly was related to the last federal government shutdown.
Prompt action by legislators representing Wilkes and Iredell counties, upon being made aware of the situation, helped avoid a great disservice to farmers in the two counties.