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Farming for Votes

Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam outlined his strategies for improving the Tennessee agriculture business environment on Wednesday before hundreds of farmers and ranchers gathered at a state Farm Bureau event in Franklin.

Haslam said his overarching effort to check government spending — his commitment to which he said is observable by examining his two-term tenure as mayor of Knoxville — will benefit Tennessee farmers, just as it will benefit the state’s economy as a whole.

However, Haslam said his belt-tightening plans do not include eliminating state-level  agriculture grants, which in this budget year account for about $16 million.

“We will keep the agriculture enhancement grant program going,” said Haslam. “I don’t say that just to cater to this group. I really do think that’s an integral part of our economy and something we have to keep going. It’s been important.”

The pledge drew hardy applause from the Tennessee Farm Bureau audience.

Haslam also said he plans to appoint a rural business-development specialist to work in the Tennessee Department of Economic Development, and indicated he’ll press the Legislature for continued subsidization of the biofuels industry, another popular note in his speech before the largest state Farm Bureau organization in the country.

“Looking at it realistically, the state has made a big investment in the switchgrass project. I think it’s about $70 million,” said Haslam. “What we have to do, what the ethanol refiners and everybody else have to do is make certain that we make that cost-competitive.”

“It’s important in the long run that we use every source of clean energy and alternative energy that’s homegrown, rather than totally relying on oil from overseas, from people who don’t like us very much,” he added. “All that makes great sense to me. The challenge now, at the end of the day, is we have to make that market competitive, and I think we can do that. I am definitely in favor of it.”

Haslam said a “director-level person focused on rural economic development and agriculture business” will help ease harsh economic conditions in struggling rural Tennessee. “That’s where we have the highest unemployment, and that is where we need the most focus,” he said.

He also said the state will “have an agriculture program that is focused on what is best for Tennessee farmers, not for national interest groups.”

“We have to make sure that our regulations are written by people who understand the consequences,” said Haslam. “When people have been in government all of their life they don’t understand the consequences if they have never had to pay a bill, and they have never had to… (wait) on that permit they are holding up, or whatever it is. It is an advantage to hire people who have been in business and have seen those consequences and impacts, and can help spread that message out through government.”

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Press Releases

Bredesen Wants More Federal Farm Aid

Press Release from the Office of Gov. Phil Bredesen, June 4, 2010:

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today requested a Secretarial designation of natural disaster for agriculture for eight additional counties in middle and west Tennessee as a result of the historic rainfall and devastating floods that began April 30. The eight counties include: Cheatham, Dyer, Hardin, Haywood, Madison, Montgomery, Tipton and Williamson.

“Some federal farm aid is already available through the Farm Service Agency, but a Secretarial disaster designation will help make more assistance available to farmers who suffered significant losses as a result of the storms and flooding,” said Bredesen. “We want to do everything we can to help our farmers and rural communities recover from this devastating event.”

Bredesen made the request in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. A Secretarial disaster designation would make farmers in these and adjoining counties eligible to apply for supplemental farm payments through their local USDA Farm Service Agency. For those counties already covered under a Presidential declaration, farmers are also eligible to apply for low-interest emergency loans. Assistance for livestock losses and emergency conservation assistance to help rehabilitate damaged farmland is also available to eligible farmers.

Last month, Governor Bredesen made a similar request for 13 counties that included Benton, Chester, Dickson, Fayette, Hardeman, Hickman, Humphreys, Lauderdale, Lewis, Maury, McNairy, Perry and Stewart. Today’s request makes 21 counties now pending USDA approval.

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Tennessee farmers reported moderate to severe damages to 39 percent of the state’s corn crop and 21 percent of winter wheat following the flooding. Damages to fruit and vegetable crops and nurserystock were also reported as well as significant damage to farm infrastructure including access roads, levees, fences, conservation practices, buildings and equipment.

“Federal assistance will be important for helping farmers who are continuing recovery efforts in flood affected areas,” said state Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens. “Farmers are still dealing with a considerable amount of infrastructure damage and we’re seeing more acreage being shifted to soybeans as a result of lost corn acreage.”

The latest USDA-NASS crop survey shows that farmers made significant progress the week ending May 30 with cutting hay and planting crops, although some areas previously flooded were still too wet to plant. Crops not damaged by flooding were rated in mostly good to excellent condition. For the latest crop forecast and a weekly report on crop conditions across the state, visit www.nass.usda.gov/tn. The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes this report available each Monday at 3 p.m., April through November.

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Press Releases

More Federal Relief for TN Farmers

State of Tennessee press release, Jan 22, 2010:

Bredesen Announces Federal Farm Assistance for Five Counties

21 Counties Now Qualify as Primary Natural Disaster Designation

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved his request for federal farm assistance for five additional Tennessee counties due to excessive rain and flooding that occurred in September and October.

“The 2009 growing season was certainly unpredictable and challenging for many of our state’s farmers. This disaster designation will be important for helping those who experienced significant crop losses during last year’s unusually wet harvest,” said Bredesen. “I’m pleased that USDA has responded so promptly to my request.”

Bredesen made the request in a Dec. 11 letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The five counties designated as primary natural disaster areas include: Claiborne, Cocke, Rutherford, Sevier and Union.

The designation makes farmers in these counties eligible to apply for assistance, including emergency loans and supplemental farm payments, through their local USDA Farm Service Agency. Also qualifying as secondary, adjoining disaster counties are: Anderson, Bedford, Blount, Campbell, Cannon, Coffee, Davidson, Grainger, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Jefferson, Knox, Marshall and Williamson.

With today’s announcement, a total of 21 Tennessee counties have qualified for a primary natural disaster designation due to excessive rain during the 2009 harvest. Last month, USDA named 16 other counties as primary natural disasters including: Bradley, Chester, Cumberland, Hamilton, Hardeman, Lauderdale, Macon, McMinn, McNairy, Meigs, Polk, Rhea, Shelby, Smith, Trousdale and Wilson.

Farmers in affected counties reported crop losses ranging from 20 to 50 percent for major crops including corn, soybeans, cotton and tobacco. Some counties reported receiving record rainfall of as much as 10 to 12 inches during what are normally the driest months of the year.

USDA projected significantly higher yields in 2009 for most major Tennessee crops as compared to the previous two drought years; however, heavy rains hurt both crop yields and quality because of rotting, mold and other disease problems. Farmers also reported losses for hay, pumpkins and other specialty crops.

Statewide, the 2009 harvest was three to four weeks behind the five-year average due to the unusually wet weather according to the Tennessee Field Office of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. For the latest information on the 2009 crop harvest, visit www.nass.usda.gov/tn.