Whitmer signs $15M loan plan for farmers reeling from rains

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer meets with Duane Smuts on his farm in Charlotte on July 8, 2019.

Charlotte — Michigan farmers and state officials fear devastating crop losses caused by rainy weather will have a “long tail” for the local agricultural industry, affecting growers and their suppliers for several years.

“This is the worst that I’ve experienced,” Duane Smuts said Monday after showing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state Rep. Angela Witwer a portion of his 3,000-acre corn and soybean farm in Charlotte, a mid-Michigan city in Eaton County.

“We always go through some weather turmoil as farmers — it’s part of the business that we do. ... But the longevity of this cold and wet spell just never afforded us the opportunity to plan all of our crops this spring.”

Whitmer gathered with Smuts in one of his barns to sign a mid-year supplemental spending bill that will pump $15 million into a state disaster loan program for farmers who struggled to plant crops during near-continual rains.

The first-term Democrat is also asking the federal government for a disaster declaration, which would give farmers additional flexibility to access crop insurance and relief funding approved earlier this month by President Donald Trump

Whitmer said she personally discussed the request with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a July 1 phone call.

“He listened. He asked questions, and he was engaged,” Whitmer said. “So I am optimistic.”

Michigan farmers typically plant crops between mid-April and mid-June, but the two-month window was cut short this year by the heavy rains, said Robert Mansfield, who owns five grain elevators in Charlotte and other local communities.

Because of modern technology, a farm like the Smuts' could typically plant their full crop in as little as six days of good weather. But this year, they only got three, Mansfield said.

“Agronomically, this is the worst crop I’ve ever seen anywhere, and I’ve worked all the way from Texas to Michigan,” he said.

Mansfield typically moves about 1.5 million grain bushels a year through his elevators. This year, he’s hoping for 800,000.

The stunted planting season could have a major impact on large cash crops like corn, which contributes roughly $1 billion to the Michigan economy each year and covers more of the state than any other crop.

About 73 percent of corn crops got planted this year, said Tim Zook, executive director of the Michigan Corn Growers Association.

But even the land that was planted is unlikely to produce typical yields, he said, estimating state production will be down about 40 million bushels this year.

“We’ll be fortunate enough to be able to dig out of this within three years,” Zook said. “We got to get through next year before we even got hope of another chance for income from any of these guys. Many people go to work the next day.

“These guys gotta wait a whole ‘nother year before they can grow,” he added.

Smuts Farm planted about 40 percent of its planned corn acres this year and about 60 percent of its planned soybean acres. But Duane Smuts also expects a reduced yield on that land.

While he purchased optional crop insurance, but like other insurance policies, “it’ll never make you whole,” Smuts said.

For acres the farm did not plant, Smuts estimates insurance payments will amount to about 35 to 40 percent of the revenue he would have made had he been able to plant crops.

“As farmers, we usually get things done, and we just didn’t have that opportunity to get things done this year,” he said.

Suppliers don’t have those same backstops, he noted.

“I think this story is unfolding. I think we’re at the beginning of it,” Smuts told the governor.

He and other farmers spoke with Whitmer from the outskirts of a field that Smuts had intended to plant with soybeans. It would have usually been about knee-high by early July, he said.

Instead, the field was littered with brown corn stalks that were never tilled because of the rain.

“It’s hard to drive around here,” Mansfield told Whitmer. “You get kind of depressed.”