JEFFERSON CITY - Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-MO, along with Rep. Ike Skelton, D-MO, heard a number of problems from top Missouri farm leaders and barge industry representatives yesterday about the Missouri agriculture crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina, drought, and high fuel prices.
Hulshof said, "We all watched the pictures of people clinging to rooftops in the aftermath of Katrina and Washington responded very quickly as far as your tax money, but there is a ripple effect that has been felt by our farmers in Missouri."
Barges that were used to export Missouri farmers' crops to the Gulf Coast shut down after Hurricane Katrina and will not return to normal working capacity for months according to a representative of the barge industry.
Paul Werner of the MEMCO Barge Line said his industry's main problem is a lack of adequate labor to unload their barges and turn them around, resulting in a bottleneck of barges in the South.
"Labor in Louisiana has shifted. Many people have not returned to their jobs even though they may have returned to their community," Werner said.
The Food and and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri reports that the Mississippi Gulf ports account for 70 percent of corn exports, posing a financial challenge to Missouri farmers. Farmers are expected to pay more to harvest their crops because of higher fuel costs and get lower bids for their crops because of increased shipping costs by the barge industry according to the institute.
Farm representatives said at the forum that the situation is harshest for farmers without storage capacity who can't wait out the barge industry's challenges and high shipping costs.
Before Hurricane Katrina, Missouri agriculture was already suffering from drought, with 112 counties declared disaster areas by the government because of it -- a number Hulshof can't ever recall being so high.
"It really is a unique and very difficult time for Missouri agriculture," Hulshof said.
Dan Cassidy from the Missouri Farm Bureau referred to the combination of problems facing Missouri farmers as the perfect storm. Cassidy along with others at the forum suggested that the government provide disaster assistance to farmers. He also recommended Congress get a hold on transportation problems in the country.
"The transportation system is important and we have to make people in Washington listen," Cassidy said.
"I don't think they will have a deaf ear. We will do our very best, but the problem is that we (rural America) are a minority," Skelton said.
He said he hopes the hurricane has shown how agriculture can not take second place in this country.
"If nothing else, the Hurricane has caused us to think about Missouri farmers. I hope it will make people realize that agriculture is important," Skelton said.