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Millions in aid likely for farmers

August 09, 1999|By BRYN MICKLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - West Virginia's "rainy day fund" could provide about $5 million in relief to farmers hit hard by the state's severe drought, state Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said.

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West Virginia Gov. Cecil Underwood has asked for a special session of the state Legislature in which he is expected to ask lawmakers to approve a financial package to aid struggling farmers.

"The figure I'm hearing is about $5 million of the $75 million in the state's emergency fund," Doyle said.

The session could come as early as Aug. 17 following the Legislature's final interim session at 5 p.m., Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, said.

Money from West Virginia's emergency fund will likely be used for water and grain hauling programs as well as grants that could tie in with federal funds once the U.S. government decides on a drought-relief financial package, Doyle said.

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The Eastern Panhandle is one of the federal disaster areas declared last week, making area farmers eligible for federal assistance.

West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Gus R. Douglass said last week the state estimates crop damage will surpass $100 million and that as many as 10 percent of the state's 21,000 family farms might go under.

"My gut feeling is that we will use money from our rainy day fund as seed money to trigger federal grants," Doyle said.

Douglass has already asked for $2 million that would draw $7 million in federal matching funds to help farmers.

Temporary assistance from the state would be a much-needed stopgap measure until federal dollars start flowing directly to Eastern Panhandle farmers, Overington said.

"The federal money could take weeks or months to get here," Overington said.

State grants for farmers would be preferable to some kind of low-interest loan program, West Virginia Del. Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson, said.

"We don't want to stack so much debt on the farmers that they can't get out from under it," Manuel said.

Del. Vicki Douglas, D-Berkeley, said Underwood has spent about a month working on a plan to provide long- and short-term help for farmers.

While the Legislature might make some changes to Underwood's plan, it should remain focused on helping farmers, Douglas said.

"We need to provide money, feed and water for an agricultural community that has been devastated," she said.

Berkeley County recorded 25.7 inches of rainfall as of June 30, about 12 inches below its 12-month normal of 37.3 inches. Jefferson County had 28.5 inches of rainfall as of Aug. 3 compared to its 12-month normal of 38.7 inches.

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