Since the weeklong freeze in February, Nasir Kureshy, the owner of Turtle Creek Aquaculture in Palacios, has been busy cleaning out the tens of thousands of redfish that died in his ponds, applying for disaster loans and pleading along with other farmers for relief.
So far, fish farmers’ calls for help have been met with silence from federal officials.
“Really, I’m kind of surprised that they’re not even willing to discuss (it) with us,” Kureshy said. “We certainly haven’t gotten any good reasoning why they’re not including us.”
We’re scratching our heads, too.
Texas aquaculture produces 98% of the redfish consumed in the United States. The vast majority of those fish are raised in Matagorda, Jackson, Calhoun and Wharton counties.
When the winter freeze hit, those Gulf Coast farmers were devastated, suffering an estimated tens of millions of dollars in losses. Some farmers had to bury hundreds of thousands of fish into pits. Neither market-ready fish nor fingerlings were spared, meaning next year’s crop also took a major hit. America’s domestic redfish supply was decimated in one fell swoop.
The United States Department of Agriculture has a program in place for when disasters like this happen. It’s called ELAP, and it provides up to $20 million in relief annually for producers of livestock, honeybees and farm-raised fish affected by disasters including “certain adverse weather events.”
If February’s freeze, which brought single-digit temperatures, layers of ice and several inches of snow to some redfish farms, wasn’t an “adverse weather event,” it’s hard to say what is.
Bizarrely, ELAP payments are restricted to fish raised for bait or game. But according to federal rules, the deputy administrator of farm programs at the Farm Service Agency has discretion to make other aquatic species eligible for relief too.
So far, Bradley Karmen, who fills this position at FSA, has declined to do so. Shane Nicaud, chief administrative officer of Gulf States Aquaculture in Palacios, said state officials have told him Karmen is unlikely to change his mind.
Instead, federal officials have directed farmers to another program that provides just $125,000 in loss coverage. One farmer facing foreclosure told The Advocate that’s barely enough money to cover his losses in a single pond.
Nicaud said there are larger issues at play. He thinks a decision with such major implications for the redfish industry shouldn’t be up to the sole discretion of one person. Nicaud also said the $20 million allocated to ELAP isn’t enough to cover farmers’ losses, and more funding is likely needed.
Those are good points. Still, the lack of communication from federal officials has been inexplicable.
“I had high hopes that it wouldn’t be as adversarial as it’s been from their side, meaning just a complete and utter shutdown,” Nicaud said.
After a disaster, farmers shouldn’t have to fight, beg and cajole federal officials for the help they need to rebuild their operations and stay in business. The government should be going out of its way to help out, not ignoring farmers and failing to answer their questions.
Tens of millions of dollars in disaster assistance might seem like a lot of money, until you remember that Congress just passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, along with the $2.2 trillion CARES Act and another $900 billion stimulus bill last year.
Money isn’t the issue here. The question is whether the government is willing to help, or whether it’s content to let some farmers struggle to recover and sink deeper into debt while others go out of business.
Nicaud said farmers are reaching out to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to appeal Karmen’s decision.
Let’s hope Vilsack provides some answers.