Farmer relief bill moves through S.C. House

The S.C. House of Representatives gave key approval to a bill on Thursday that would provide flood-affected farmers with up to $100,000 in grants. The $40 million bill heads to the Senate next week.

COLUMBIA – The South Carolina House gave key approval Thursday to an amended $40 million flood relief bill for farmers affected by the historic October flooding.

The House voted 95-6 — a veto-proof margin — to provide eligible farmers up to $100,000 to cover production expenses and losses as a result of the disaster. Farmers cannot use funds to buy new farm equipment or pay down debt.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, authored the bill that uses surplus funds to bypass the lengthy budget process to get money to the farmers hopefully by corn-planting season.

“I’ve spoken to some senators, they understand the need and it is time critical,” White said. “This is cash that’s ready and available as soon as they can get it passed.”

The bill arrives in the Senate next week. If and when it comes out of committee, the bill could bypass the ongoing roads debate and go up for a vote.

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley does not support the farm relief measure. She previously said low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and crop insurance were sufficient, adding that other affected small businesses were not getting taxpayer bailouts.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, agreed.

“With our priorities in South Carolina, to set aside $40 million when we’re short on everything else I can’t support it,” he told White on Thursday.

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White refuted the claim. He said many generational farmers who lost their entire crop — at the height of harvesting season — are on the brink of collapse.

“In farming, you can’t pick up a cotton field, soybeans or peanuts and move it to higher ground, so it is different,” White said. “You might think it’s just the farm, well it’s the hardware store on the street, it’s the seed store, it’s school teachers, it’s everybody in that area that keep these communities vibrant and we’re trying to keep them going.”

White said some farmers are getting behind on planting and loan repayments because of insufficient crop insurance payouts.

Agriculture is a $42 billion industry, the state’s largest according to the S.C. Department of Agriculture.

To be grant-eligible, farms need to be Farm Service Agency-verified and have sustained at least a 40 percent total crop loss in a disaster-declared county, and farmers would have to sign an affidavit accurately stating their losses. A seven member board would determine farmer eligibility.