First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON - Agriculture officials are now estimating that drought-related crop damage in the county has reached $33 million, and are stepping up efforts to gain federal relief for farmers.
They have an advocate in Washington, D.C., in Mike McIntyre, who is working to have the county declared a disaster area, which could being grants and low-interest loans within the reach of farmers.
The $33 million estimate is a $13 million increase over two weeks ago, a period that has been marked by very little rain in Robeson County and temperatures that routinely reach into the 100s.
“We have clearly met the threshold for requesting economic relief and emergency assistance,” said McIntyre, a Lumberton Democrat.
McIntyre met with 25 farmers from Robeson and Bladen counties Thursday night to discuss the situation. He said he would send a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns requesting relief and will also send a letter to President Bush. He has already contacted North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley.
“We are leaving no stone unturned,” McIntyre said. “I'm trying to do everything we can to attack this at both the sate and federal levels.”
McIntyre said he is seeking two disaster declarations, one from President Bush that would make grants available, and another from the Johanns that would give farmers access to low-interest loans.
“We don't want there to be any delay to be of help to our farmers,” McIntyre said. “They need financial help and they need it now.”
In order to qualify as a disaster area, a county must have suffered crop losses of at least 30 percent. As of Thursday, losses in Robeson County were at 41 percent. Agriculture officials project a loss of 50 percent by the end of the summer.
“I feel certain McIntyre will do all that he can,” said Everett Davis, county extension director. “But it still doesn't hurt that more folks than just the farmers know what's going on.”
Kent Wooten, agriculture extension agent, agrees.
“The public really needs to be aware of this,” Wooten said. “Everybody needs to realize that when they go to the grocery store … we take for granted that food is going to be there.”
Wooten said that if the weather does not change - and the forecast doesn't offer much short-term hope - the county could see additional losses totaling $7 million.
“It affects us all,” Wooten said. “Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in the county. The drought is taking $40 million out of this economy. That's a lot of jobs, food and fiber.”
According to the National Weather Service, the last significant rain in Robeson County was one-third of an inch on Aug. 10. The last heavy rainfall was 1.58 inches on June 13.
The National Weather Service says that it will be the end of next week before Robeson County sees another chance of rain.