Louisiana producers await word on disaster relief

Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu are hopeful Congress will authorize hurricane disaster relief funding for Louisiana by Sept. 26.

“Congress is scheduled to vote on a continuing resolution to keep the government running through either November or January,” Strain said. “We think we can get them to include Louisiana’s request for disaster relief. Our job is to make sure we can get an accurate and precise dollar amount for them to consider.”

Strain said he was scheduled to meet with the Louisiana congressional delegation on agricultural issues as soon as the danger of Gustav and Ike had passed, but Gov. Bobby Jindal intervened and asked both Strain and Landrieu to lobby Congress on behalf of the entire state.

Strain and Landrieu flew to Washington Sept. 16 and returned Sept. 17, after two days of meetings with federal leaders, including USDA Secretary Ed Schafer.

Landrieu was optimistic Louisiana’s request will be favorably received by Congress. “We met with the entire Louisiana delegation, along with congressional leaders and staffers,” Landrieu said. “This is one team, and with one voice we will work to keep Louisiana’s recovery at the forefront of the national agenda.”

Strain said other states affected by the storms, like Texas and Mississippi, will also help bring attention to the disaster relief effort. “We’ve had tremendous and unprecedented agricultural losses as well as losses to businesses and state infrastructure,” Strain said. “The lieutenant governor and I are going back to Washington next week, and we will speak for all of Louisiana and tell Congress what we need to recover.”

Strain said he took exception to comments made by University of Louisiana at Monroe economist Robert Eisenstadt. In a Sept. 9 interview with KNOE television station reporter Jennifer Townley, Eisenstadt said losses caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike were a disaster, but “when you put it into perspective of the entire state of Louisiana, it (the losses) is really rather small.”

“Dr. Eisenstadt misses the big picture,” Strain said. “While it’s true that agriculture, timber and aquaculture don’t directly employ as many people in the work force as it once did, agriculture is the backbone of our entire economy. Agriculture is food, fiber and fuel. You either eat it, wear it, build with it or use it to power equipment.

“Saying agriculture only accounts for (a small percent) of Louisiana’s economy is really a misinterpretation of the facts. Louisiana agriculture brings in more than $10 billion annually into the state’s economy and employs more than 10 percent of the population in half of the state’s parishes.

“A century ago the manufacturing segment was rather small. Agriculture was king. We cultivated and harvested enough food and fiber to keep America fed. Today, manufacturing is a greater percentage of the economy but American agriculture still produces enough food to feed the country and much of the world.

“And that’s the key, isn’t it? If we can’t feed ourselves, then manufacturing, retail, pharmaceuticals, computers — everything goes by the wayside.

“I have personally visited with many farmers and their families that lost their entire crop. Will they be able to absorb the loss?

“Sometimes it’s proper to assess numbers in broad strokes, but when you stand shoulder to shoulder with a farmer in a ruined sweet potato field or flooded cotton field it becomes personal.

“I am hopeful state farmers and other agricultural producers will be able to get the help they need from Washington to survive and plant a new crop next year.

“Now is the time for compassion, not just for farmers, but for the families that left their homes to evacuate, for the elderly couple who had a tree fall on their house or the young business owner who shuttered his store because there was no power.

“I believe that if Dr. Eisenstadt saw the damage and heartache caused by Gustav and Ike up close like I’ve seen, he would be more prudent with his comments.”

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