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Georgia farmers left out of budget battle

Months after Hurricane Michael left South Georgia farms in tatters, federal lawmakers leave farmers hoping for relief out of the new budget compromise.

ATLANTA — The budget proposal to avert a second government shutdown has left one important demographic out: Georgia farmers who’s businesses were decimated by Hurricane Michael.

The bill, which President Donald Trump must sign before midnight on Friday to avoid another shutdown scenario was supposed to include federal funding for Georgia farmers. But, the version that is on its way to the White House leaves our state out.

Hurricane Michael roared through South Georgia on October 10 as a Category 3 storm. It caused about $2.5 billion in losses to pecan, cotton, timber, poultry and vegetable crops. For pecan and timber farmers, it will take a decade or more to grow viable trees which would be ready for harvesting. Agriculture is Georgia’s top industry.

RELATED: Hurricane Michael destroys 6-decade old pecan farm

Stevie Akins is a cotton farmer in Warwick. 11Alive news spoke with him shortly after the hurricane as he was still taking stock of the damage.

"It just became a rough year," Akins said. "It was about to be the best crop I think we've ever seen."

Akins estimated the winds that hit his 2,200-acre farm reached up to 100 mph. He lost his entire crop.

"It just about destroyed everything on our farm," he said.

Hurricane Michael toppled 700 acres of trees at the Pecan Ridge Plantation, the farm that Eric Cohen runs with his brother. 11Alive spoke to Cohen a month after the storm and talked with him again Thursday. 

Cohen said that he is grateful for the help from the legislature, but said more work is still needed.

"I can't say enough about Governor Deal, and now Governor Kemp and (Agriculture Commissioner) Gary Black, how much they have helped us down here," Cohen said. "Seminole County, Decatur County, Miller County, Baker County ... it's a complete war zone down here."

The Georgia legislature held an emergency session in November and allocated $270 million in state funds toward hurricane relief. They also gave $200 million in income tax credits to timber and pecan farmers to help replant trees that were destroyed.

State lawmakers and farmers were relying on federal lawmakers to help. Emergency relief funds were supposed to be included in the new budget bill, but it was apparently cut in the most recent round of negotiations.

"We're Trump's base down here. This is Trump's base and it's almost like we're getting kind of left behind, or forgotten," Cohen said. "The state of Georgia cannot handle $2.5 billion in disaster (relief). I can tell you that."

RELATED: GA lawmakers: State aid proposed for S. Georgia hurricane relief 'drop in the bucket'

U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA) wrote to house and Senate leaders Wednesday urging them to include the supplemental disaster relief package.

In a letter to Congressional leaders, Isakson and Perdue wrote, “…we insist you bring a disaster supplemental bill to the floor for consideration at the earliest opportunity to ensure that the federal government fulfills its responsibility.”

They are asking for $3 billion dollars in agriculture disaster relief. 

In a statement, Rep. Austin Scott, who represents Tifton, Georgia, hard-hit by Michael, derided the budget. 

"For months, I have worked tirelessly with my colleagues in the House for timely disaster relief for farmers and communities impacted by Hurricane Michael and the other natural disasters of 2018. When this spending package was released without disaster assistance, I was disappointed and frustrated that the assurances we have heard for months that relief would be included," he said. 

For now, Cohen is hopeful, but unfortunately caught in the middle of Washington politics. 

"I know that it will get worked out," Cohen said. "We just need help now and we don't need to keep passing it down the road."

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