USDA funds have helped thousands of farmers and ranchers in many states work toward recovering from hurricanes, but Puerto Rico—home to more than 13,000 farm and ranch families devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017—continues to struggle greatly, the American Farm Bureau Federation noted in a recent letter to Bill Northey, USDA Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service.
Less than 1,500 Puerto Rican farmers and ranchers have filed for payments through USDA’s 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program, which has been available there since July 2018. And few, if any, have received payments.
Part of the problem is farmers and their local Farm Bureau representatives have had little success in getting much-needed support from their local Farm Service Agency officials. On top of that, they were only recently made aware of an online e-authentication process available for the WHIP payments.
Another likely factor is local FSA officials’ shift in focus from processing WHIP applications to working on the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which recently prompted a whistleblower complaint. According to the complaint, important disaster assistance work was found to be out of compliance—and ultimately rejected—for errors that weren’t errors at all.
To get farmers and ranchers in Puerto Rico the help they greatly need, Farm Bureau is urging USDA to make immediate efforts to improve customer service in the FSA offices there, with a focus on WHIP enrollment. The organization is also asking the department to provide a permanent extension for WHIP applications beyond the Nov. 16 deadline.
“Farm Bureau is a family, and all of our members, whether impacted by a disaster or not, appreciate your efforts thus far and look forward to working with the department in the near future to provide disaster assistance to farmers impacted by Hurricanes Florence and Michael,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in the letter. “However, the lack of WHIP assistance in Puerto Rico must be addressed quickly to ensure that farming and ranching remains a critical component of Puerto Rico’s economy.”