FILE - Hugh Weathers

South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers Content Exchange

(The Center Square) – The South Carolina Department of Agriculture (SCDA) wants lawmakers to create a fund seeded with $40 million in federal pandemic money that the state’s 25,000 farms can tap into when recovering from “continued market-based interruptions and frequent natural disasters.”

The request for a “separate and distinct agricultural resilience fund” was part of the SCDA’s $90.352 million request outlined in a presentation to a House panel weighing proposals on how to spend $3 billion in one-time funding plugs by year’s end.

Both chambers of the South Carolina General Assembly have created appropriations ad hoc committees to field requests for funding from the $525 billion Savannah River Site (SRS) plutonium settlement and $2.4 billion in federal aid the state will receive via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

The House SRS/ARPA committee has met twice, Aug. 24 and Sept. 2. Its Senate counterpart also has convened two times, Aug. 3 and Aug. 26.

More hearings are expected before lawmakers convene a special session to vet committees’ recommendations before year's end, even though the state has two years do so. ARPA funds must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

In a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chair Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers introduced the $90.352 million funding request forwarded to the House SRS/ARPA panel on Sept. 2, seeking $50.352 million to “support for key economic drivers” and $40 million for “infrastructure resilience.”

“Due to continued market-based interruptions and frequent natural disasters, the industry seeks the framework and funding for a separate and distinct agricultural resilience fund,” Weathers wrote, noting the $46.2 billion agriculture industry is South Carolina’s “number one industry … accounting for over 246,957 jobs.”

The SCDA’s proposed South Carolina Farm Aid Program is “designed to work in concert with” state agencies “to create a permanent fund to assist farmers with financial recovery of losses/expenses.”

Under the SCDA’s proposal, the money would be available for nearly 25,000 farms across South Carolina that “do not qualify for the traditional disaster programs offered through the (U.S.) Small Business Administration and other federal agencies.”

To create the program, “Legislation would be needed to establish a permanent statuary structure” for the fund, Weathers said.

The SCDA’s $50.352 million request for “key economic drivers” includes $20 million for “local food supply chain infrastructure” matching grants to meet “growing consumer demand” for local products and $20 million for a commodity mitigation fund.

“During COVID-19, many customers experienced food shortages, which speaks to the need for a more local and simplified food supply chain system,” Weathers wrote, noting 42% of state beef/poultry producers said if “non-marketing barriers” were addressed — lack of frozen storage space, refrigerated transport – they’d expand.

The SCDA wants $20 million for a Commodity Producer Mitigation Fund to address “numerous claims filed with SCDA because of the stated inability of grain and cotton buyers” to meet commitments and to replenish South Carolina’s Grain Producers Guaranty and Warehouse Receipts funds.

“These claims leave the funds dangerously depleted, and the farmers who rely on them for protection, vulnerable to future buyers’ inability to pay for the product delivered,” Weathers said.

The SCDA is seeking $4 million to work with 330 farmers in six hubs to promote their products and farmers markets, $3 million for the Farmers-to-Food Banks program and $2.75 million for upgrades at 136 community farmers markets and 151 roadside farmers markets statewide.

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