Farmers continue struggle for flood aid

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:30

Goshen — The devastation wrought by the recent tropical storms will linger for a long time. And those who bore their brunt doubt whether Washington politicos can put aside their differences long enough to pass relief legislation, or do it quickly enough to make a difference. With decisions on funding left hanging, farmers say that what may be at stake is the viability of the entire Black Dirt region. The gridlock centers on whether disaster aid should be accompanied by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, or given without offsets, as has always been done in the past. This week's debate yielded only temporary measures. But there's a chance the federal government will allocate more money in November, or change the rules so that crops can qualify as lost property. A bill allocating $1.7 billion for river and flood management will soon be before Congress. But how much will go to flood-damaged Mississippi and Missouri, and how much to New York, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, admitting that federal action is necessary and that state resources cannot even hope to be much more than a gesture, Governor Cuomo said he has obtained $2.4 million to be divided among 125 farms statewide (please see related story). The money is earmarked for culverts and field repair. But Chris Pawelski, whose Black Dirt onion farm lost nearly $200,000 in assets, asks, "What good are culverts when I have no crops?" The U.S. Department of Agriculture will be making loans up to $500,000, but these also are not slated for crops. Friends and neighbors offer support, food, and money, and fill up parking lots at local farmers' markets, bringing some farmers to tears of appreciation. Last week's fundraisers, the Warwick Valley Farm Aid Benefit and "Dine Out Irene," brought in more than $50,000. Pawelski says this was quite an accomplishment by the Warwick Chamber of Commerce and private organizers who put the event together in two weeks. Nearly 20 bands volunteered their talent and just about every politician and legislator he knows showed up. He believes the fundraisers may influence federal legislators who have control over the big money. Pawelski forwarded video of the Black Dirt devastation and fundraising to federal legislators, then posted comments on many local news Web sites to increase awareness of the farmers' plight and the need for political action on their behalf. Pawelski spent three days lobbying in Washington for aid that farmers believe is as much their right as aid to homeowners and business owners, who receive compensation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for property losses. "We deem our crops are our property," Pawelski said. He is hoping for an executive order from President Obama that would allow for the compensation of crops. U.S. Senators from New York, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillebrand, and U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey from New York's 22nd congressional district, have been busy seeking compensation for farmers and hoping to change state and federal rules that prohibit the clearing of rivers, which is now stalled. Schumer and Gillebrand are also looking to remove the 3.75 interest rate on flood loans. In a spot of good news, Chester farmers who grow crops on hillsides or harvested early were not wiped out. CSA's — community-supported agriculture groups — were spared because they sell seasonal shares to the public. And then there is the kindness and generosity of local people. The sign in the window of a local delicatessen reads: Flood damage? No house? No job? No food? Come on in and have an egg on a roll How to help Contributions for flood-striken farmers may be made through the following organizations: For Goshen farmers: The First Presbyterian Church of Goshen 33 Park Place Goshen, NY 10924 Make checks payable to: Goshen Ecumenical Food Pantry Fundraiser also planned for Nov. 5 For Warwick farmers: Warwick Valley Chamber of Commerce P.O. Box 1270, Warwick, NY 10990 Make checks payable to: Community 2000, Inc. For Orange County farmers: Orange County Farmers in Need (on Facebook)