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Georgia farmers on knife edge as bad weather, tariff war, shutdown exact toll

Christopher Quinn, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Business News

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Justin Jones drove his muddy GMC truck Tuesday through one of his pecan orchards, new gaps between rows of trees spotted with smoldering ash heaps that days before had been house-high piles of broken limbs and toppled trunks brought down by Hurricane Michael.

"Looks like a war zone, doesn't it?" he said.

Earlier in the day, he had stood in a horizon-wide cotton field with a broad swath of bedraggled plants still white, the drooping cotton unpickable and ruined by unceasing winter rains.

The old-timers tell him they haven't seen anything like it in southwest Georgia, the 40-year-old Jones said.

The burden of disastrous weather carried by Georgia farmers has been made heavier by politics. First, Chinese tariffs imposed in July on Georgia farm produce, a result of President Donald Trump's trade war, cut profits or stopped sales. Then, the partial government shutdown, a result of the political fight over funding for a border wall with Mexico, closed down U.S. Department of Agriculture services for five weeks at a critical time.

Farmers plan crops, prepare fields and line up financing January to March. But most USDA functions and local Farm Service Agency offices closed in late December and most of January. That left farmers behind and prevented them from applying for loans, collecting federal disaster aid and crop insurance and trade mitigation payments which were given to offset a portion of tariff losses. In a financially pinched time, that money would be useful.

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The closing also delayed USDA crop counts and forecasts, which farmers use to determine what and how much of crops to plant.

Without that information, "We're flying blind," Jones said.

The weather has always been part of the equation that makes farming something between a business proposition and a gambling addiction. Politics also plays a role, but its effects are painfully magnified this year.

That hasn't persuaded farmers they were wrong in their election choice -- 75 percent of Lee County voters backed Trump in 2016. Multiple conversations over three days didn't turn up anyone who had changed their mind.

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