State pledges aid to farmers, but planting can't wait for paper work

The sprawling farms of western Massachusetts have a lush, green look that makes this year look like any other good crop year. But beneath the corn and potatoes, deep scars remain from flood waters that inundated many farms this past spring.

Crop losses are estimated at $13 million, but farmers won't know the actual dollars-and-cents damage until harvest. Whatever the figure, for the first time Massachusetts farmers will get state aid in addition to federal grants and loans.

''We may get $5 million from the state, which is something that has not happened before,'' says farmer Raymond Duda, who is also Massachusetts executive director of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), a program run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In the past, all aid has come in the form of loans and grants from several federal assistance programs.

With USDA officials, state Food and Agriculture commissioner Fred Winthrop Jr. went to areas that had been hit hardest to assess the damage. After he discussed his findings with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Secretary of Environmental Affairs James Hoyt, it became apparent more funding was needed because some farmers appeared on the verge of bankruptcy, says John Walsh of the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Governor Dukakis signed a supplementary budget, making available $11 million in grant money to deal with flood-related damage. Of this, roughly $5 million may go to the farmers. The rest will probably be used to repair roads damaged during the flood.

''They [state officials] finally realized the importance of agriculture in the commonwealth,'' Mr. Duda says.

Massachusetts farms produced more than $350 million worth of food last year, and though that amounts to less than 1 percent of the state's total gross product, it is important to the economy of western Massachusetts. The state ranks eighth in the production of sweet corn, and 30th in potatoes.

Statewide, 3,200 farms (more than 100,000 acres) were affected by the floods that coursed the Connecticut River Valley in late May and early June. According to USDA officials, the flood was the worst in 50 years.

But for the farmer, there's no time for paper work when crops and land are at stake.

''You don't have time to think about the loans and money when the flood hits, '' explains Stanley Swawlowski, a potato farmer in nearby Hatfield. ''You have to decide right away: Am I going to replant? Should I get the extra men and work all night to get new seed into the ground? Will I be wasting my time? You can't just sit back and say, 'I'll get my aid, so I won't replant.' You can't count on that.''

Mr. Swawlowski, who with his three brothers owns 850 acres of potato farms, lost 600 acres of crops along the Connecticut River, which covered some areas under 12 feet of water. He has an application for aid but hasn't yet filled it out.

''It's frustrating,'' he says. ''You plant, you work hard, and in a few days your work is under water.''

Swawlowski says replanting is a big risk; there's no way to know - until harvest time - whether it was the right move. ''You gamble big when you try to plant after a flood - but we had no choice. We lost most of our initial planting.''

The effects on the consumer will not be felt for some time. In September corn prices will probably increase slightly throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, according to the USDA. Potato prices, already up this year, will also increase around harvest time - especially in Connecticut, where farmers like Swawlowski sell most of their crop.

So far, Massachusetts has received $200,000 through the federal Emergency Conservation Program (USDA) - ''not nearly enough,'' according to Duda.

''We need more federal dollars in aid,'' Duda adds. ''We need money to help with land preservation and conservation.''

He recalls that 1938 flood put corn crops under 10 feet of water. ''But we had no dams or flood control then,'' he says. ''This year some of the dams were 98 percent full, and we still had this type of flooding.''

Duda says financial loss to farmers this year will depend on how quickly they replanted their crops after the water receded. ''The corn can be replanted, but with large potato farms it is more difficult,'' he says. ''Some potato farms are shot for the year. Many farmers are planting a cover crop to hold the soil. But a cash crop? No way, in many cases ... not this year.''

According to Everett Paluska, federal director of the Farmer's Home Administration (FHA) in the state, there have been 70 requests for loan applications. To qualify, a farmer must have suffered a 30 percent or more crop loss on his farm. Mr. Paluska says many farmers will qualify this year. ''We are the lending agency of last resort,'' he explains. The FHA allows farmers one to 40 years to repay its low-interest loans.

The ASCS also has a grant program, which can provide a farmer with up to 64 percent of the money he needs to cover crop losses and damages to land, machinery, and buildings.

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