Hurricane Irma tore through Florida nearly 10 months ago. Citrus was heavily impacted by the storm, as well as other industries, like dairy. In February 2018, a relief package was passed for Florida agriculture. Despite suffering extensive damage, dairy was left out of the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program (WHIP). So, what went wrong? Some dairy producers are still trying to figure that out.
Brittany Nickerson-Thurlow, a partner at Nickerson Cattle Company, says her dairy has seen an extensive loss in production since Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017. Property was damaged, but most of it was insured. She says her company is still getting past those damages. The loss of electricity was costly, as well. The biggest loss in production, though, came from the cows. No cows were lost in the storm, but they did suffer from mass amounts of stress. “When a cow is exposed to that kind of environmental stress, depending on where she is in her lactation, she can lose production until her following lactation,” she explains.
Ben Butler, a dairy farmer with Butler Oaks Farm, also suffered some structural damage and electrical damage. According to Butler, he was out of electricity for five days, then even when electricity came back, he still had to run a generator for two more weeks. Similar to Nickerson-Thurlow, a big loss in production came from stress on the cows. “We lost about 25 percent of milk production for several days after the storm and it took months for milk production to get back to normal,” he explains.
Following the storm, dairy farmers went to work advocating for their industry by visiting with legislators and inviting legislators to visit their farms to see damage first hand. Ray Hodge, director of government affairs for Southeast Milk, led extensive efforts after Irma to gather damage assessments, then report it to legislators. Butler says that although having legislators visit the farm seemed to be effective, they would not know the long-term ramifications from the storm until months later. Therefore, it was difficult to communicate exact losses to legislators right after the storm.
It was not until early May that dairy farmers learned they would not receive any relief funding from WHIP, which USDA has announced signup for eligible farmers this month.
Nickerson-Thurlow says she was very disappointed when the details about the WHIP program were released. “It was a shock for everybody,” she says. She adds that the industry was particularly surprised because the dairy industry’s efforts after the storm were similar to the efforts made after Hurricane Charley, which hit Florida in 2004. The dairy industry received relief funds 18 months after Charley.
Butler says when word got around that a package was passed, it was like a breath of “fresh air.” However, when the news came that dairy was not eligible, that fresh air turned into disappointment.
According to Hodge, language in the relief package restricted help to those farmers that produce a “crop” and USDA interpretation is that milk is not a “crop” and thus dairy is excluded from participating in the WHIP program.
“It was unfortunate, but fortunately in the following days of learning of this oversight, Florida dairy farmers and members of Southeast Milk were already scheduled to go to Washington, D.C., as part of a Florida Farm Bureau trip,” Butler says. Nickerson-Thurlow and Hodge were among those making the trip in early May.
That trip kick-started more efforts to advocate for dairy relief funds. Hodge is again at the forefront of those efforts. He says there are a couple of options for obtaining help for dairy farmers. One option is the longer path of pushing new legislation through Congress; the other is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use discretionary funds to aid the dairy farmers in need. The second option is the faster one and entails asking the USDA to set aside funds and disperse them using a program similar to the one used in 2004 after Hurricane Charley.
Hodge stresses that the industry does not blame anyone in government for this oversight. “They were responsive and secured the needed help the best they could for all of Florida agriculture, but this technical issue left dairy out,” he explains. “However, we are confident that our federal and state leaders will do all they can to secure this needed help as timely as possible. It is just the right thing to do.”