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As Hurricane Florence brings flooding to Southeastern states, the Daily Yonder spoke at length with Scott Marlow of Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI) to discuss the potential impacts on farmers, rural communities and the environment.
RAFI has launched an education and aid program to assist farmers before, during and after Hurricane Florence. RAFI works primarily in North Carolina and in Southeastern states, but also has national programs. The organization expects the work of hurricane recovery to continue for years to come.
Marlow is a farm policy and rural economic development expert, as well as an experienced one-on-one farm financial crisis advocate. This is the 17th hurricane Marlow has experienced as a disaster recovery worker. Marlow is based in Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the state’s Piedmont region.
The interview is presented here and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates recorded the interview.
DY: How are things holding up there for now?
Marlow: It’s OK so far. We’re far enough inland that we just have a windy and cloudy day for now (Thursday, September 13, 2018). At this point, you can tell as much from Weather Channel and media coverage as we can.
DY: Tell me about the efforts that RAFI has going to educate farmers and rural people about what’s coming.
Marlow: One is that we work directly with farmers extensively on disaster recovery. Obviously, if there’s important things to be done in direct response or relief, we’ll help out the best we can. We generally kick in during that transition period from relief to recovery. Our experience with disaster recovery is that there are a set of federal programs that people can get access to, but if they don’t do the right things in the days right after the hurricane, they won’t be eligible. They’ll lose that opportunity.
In the big picture, this hurricane is coming in what was already a very difficult time from the farm financial viability perspective. We run a Farm Advocacy Program where we work with farmers in financial crisis, farmers all levels and scale, from two acres to 20,000 acres and farmers of all sizes in between. It’s row crop farmers, vegetable farmers, there’s chickens and hogs, all kinds of farmers. Part of the story here, as we’re waiting to see what happens with the storm, is that we already have a full caseload of farmers dealing with financial stress because of agriculture prices. For the last year, we’re seeing conventional commodity farms in larger numbers coming to us because they couldn’t get loans, couldn’t cash flow, because of low prices.
“What we know going into this disaster is that the number of farmers who need our help is going to go up very soon.”
We’re one of very few folks across the country who goes to farmers, sits down with them at the kitchen table, go through the shoeboxes of receipts, go through the paperwork and we help them come up with a plan to navigate the circumstances so they can keep owning their farm and their home.
A couple of things about disasters to know. One is that federal disaster programs tend to support large-scale commodity producers more than they support either livestock farms or the direct market and specialty market farmer. A disaster takes all of the resilience of the system. It’s going to tap and max out all of your money and resources. You’re probably not going to have any financial resilience left. Those folks who’ve followed our advice, frankly, the farmers doing direct marketing, adding value, selling specialty products, the farmers that have diversified away from commodity farming, those folks are less likely to have disaster programs that work well for them. And, even if the programs could work for them, this group of farmers is less likely to sign up for them or even know that the assistance programs are there.
In the midst of current price crisis, we came into this situation carrying a very full load. What we know going into this disaster is that the number of farmers who need our help is going to go up very soon. We know that this is going to cause extreme levels of stress across rural communities. We know that in a farm crisis following a disaster, there’s going to be a really significant mental health crisis. Really serious cases of depression, of domestic violence, of substance abuse. We crank up our most in the days when the politicians and the media have left. When we take on a farmer’s case, it is often a two- or three-year commitment from us.
The second level of our work is that we work with partner organizations on the ground out there to build their capacity to serve the farmers in their community. We have a whole series of resources available not just to individual farmers, but also the people that work with farmers, both about the programs that are available and about how to work most effectively with the farming community.
“Disaster programs expect farmers to be at their most organized best at the point where their lives are at their worst.”
DY: So what has your experience shown you about working with farmers in disaster recovery?
Marlow: In the days after a disaster, whether a farmer is able to keep their farm or lose their farm is often dependent on them navigating very complex and separate state and federal programs that can provide them resources for their recovery. But you have to have two things happen. You have to have the information about available programs, and you have to be really, really organized. Disaster programs expect farmers to be at their most organized best at the point where their lives are at their worst. You’re expecting someone whose house is flooded out, who is trying to find their animals, who’s trying to put their lives together again, and probably whose relatives are in the same situation, you’re expecting them to deliver their tax records for the last several years. You’re expecting them to have a documented farm production history.
There are lots of public information sources about how to make it through the storm itself, and that’s critically important. What we focus on is the things you need to doing just before and during this disaster is to make sure that as you go down the pike you’ll best be positioned to successfully navigate the disaster programs. Often that means determining whether you’ll be farming or not over the next two or three years. The thing we focus the most on is the importance of documentation. We urge people to go out and take pictures just before the hurricane comes in. We push people to take lots of pictures, as many as possible, from all possible angles, documenting the “before” picture of the farm and before the clean-up work happens.
Now, obviously, the storm surge and the winds, they’re very dangerous. But what’s worse in our experience, say with Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Floyd, is the flooding of the rivers and streams afterword. Part of what’s scary about this storm is that it’s going to sit on us and it’s likely to dump huge amounts of water. All of that water has to get back to ocean, and it’s going to flood while it’s on its way back. With Hurricane Matthew, it took six or seven days depending on the location for the rivers to crest. So you’re talking about the worst damage coming a week after the initial storm comes through.
DY: What kind of damage, over the longer-term, do you see during this kind of large-scale flooding?
Marlow: A little bit more on the financial resiliency side. … By working with farmers over the long haul, we know it’s not just that they’re going to have a hard time during the next few months getting rebuilt, just like the other households in the region. Lots of people are going to be having a hard time. Part of what we know is that we’re going to see a real bump in farm foreclosures in around two years. Chances are that immediately following a hurricane, banks and others are going to work with people, they’re going to have sympathy. You’ve just been through a hurricane, so you cut them some slack. There’s a lot of things banks do, and they often do them aggressively, which is great, to help people get through this moment. But once that moment passes, there is nothing left. The hurricane took all of the financial resilience right out of the system. It took their savings, it took their retirement away, if they have them. And instead of making money during that time, they lost money. They lost sales or equipment, maybe animals. They lost stored feed, all of the things it takes to farm.
There are going to be heavy crop losses, and thankfully some of that will be covered with crop insurance. That’s good, but just like health insurance or car insurance, it doesn’t get you all the way back.
DY: And they lost crops, I’m sure. It’s still harvest season in North Carolina, right?
Marlow: It’s underway. A lot of peanuts are still in the field, and if peanuts sit under water for a long time, that’ll be awful. Flooding in these soils is about volume but also about duration. How long are the crops under water? A lot of the cotton is still out there. Most of the soybeans are still in the field. Sweet potatoes are going to be a real issue, depending on the region. There are going to be heavy crop losses, and thankfully some of that will be covered with crop insurance. That’s good, but just like health insurance or car insurance, it doesn’t get you all the way back. And with prices down anyway, the crop insurance payments are going to be lower because the payment is tied to the market price of agricultural commodities.
It’s going to be even tougher for farmers on a smaller scale or who sell on alternative or direct markets instead of a straight commodity price. Unless they’ve done a heck of a job documenting the value of their non-commodity production, the disaster programs are set up to pay based on those mainstream commodity prices. The Livestock Indemnity Program, as an example, pays a set price per animal for losses that the farmer might see. If I’m raising beef calves and selling down at the auction barn, that animal has a very different value than if I’m selling a finished animal, having it processed and selling it by the cut through a direct market. The disaster assistance funds are based on the wholesale commodity price. There’s huge difference, and a much bigger income loss to the direct market farmer.
DY: What about the environmental risks to the region? There are millions of pigs concentrated in the region. There are millions of gallons of sewage out there in the region’s industrial hog operations. There’s been a bit of coverage about this leading up to the storm.
Marlow: Let me explain it in terms of nutrients and nutrient flow. You’ve got this giant output of nutrients from the Midwest and elsewhere that comes to us in the form of grain. That grain flows into places, like Eastern North Carolina and the Delmarva Peninsula, which have a very high concentration of livestock and poultry, of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Think of it as a big stream of nutrients flowing into these regions, and those nutrients flow out in the form of meat. Some of those nutrients gets cycled around again, applied as crop fertilizers, but there’s a lot of nutrients that remain. That nutrient flow is very fragile.
Now, a lot of the conversation is going to be about individual farmers. What’s going to happen on individual farms? What are farmers going to do? A farmer (who operates a CAFO) has very little flexibility. They take out very large loans, north of a million dollars, on a facility that is specifically designed by the industry, as well as how the facility will be managed. Remember that 97% of chickens and more than 50% of hogs are owned by the industry. These farmers never even own the animals. But if the animal dies, and how to handle the waste, that’s on the farmer. That’s their responsibility.
I know many individual farmers who do the best they can, who work as hard as they can, who treat their animals with respect. But there’s only so much they control. They can’t control the weather. They can’t control the hurricane. These farmers are part of an industry that says, for the sake of efficiency, you have to put as many animals as possible into these facilities. That relates to the nutrient issue, the loading rate of soils, the carrying capacity of the land.
DY: I’ve been reading about how the industry is preparing for the storm by lowering the lagoon levels. What’s the point of that?
Marlow: It is true that the hog industry learned a lesson in Hurricane Floyd. They applied more of the lagoon waste before Hurricane Matthew, and there was much less damage. But what happens is that hurricanes cause a big disruption to the system. The industry shuts down for a time, shuts down the processing plants (Smithfield has already closed the largest pork processing plant in the world), and what that does is it stops the flow of nutrients out. You’re not shipping and processing animals any more. This overextends the carrying capacity of the system at the same time there’s flooding happening. Those nutrients are primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, but also heavy metals. What a lot of people don’t understand is copper, zinc and arsenic are added as growth regulators in food. So these nutrients and heavy metals are going to go somewhere. Some of that is going to get picked up by plants, some of that is going to flow back to the ocean. Some of it is going to stay in the waterways and land in rural communities.
The problem is, you can’t put the number of animals, the number of hogs and chickens, into Eastern North Carolina and collect all the nutrients. We can talk about the technology applied by individual farms, we can talk about the way individual farmer manage, but we don’t hear enough about how the industry itself and the state encourages the huge concentration of animals in parts of this state. We don’t talk about the ways they fight any limits to those numbers. If I’m an individual farmer, my ability to impact the overall outcome of the flooding is limited.
But the overall impact to the environment and to communities is going to be caused by the aggregated volume of all the farms together, not the individual farmer. The aggregated nutrient load is the problem, and that is at the feet of the industry and state. It’s the choices made by the industry and the state not to allow any limits on their production and to encourage concentration.