Sen. Nelson seeks federal help for potato farms

Damage estimate runs as high as $45 million

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has asked the federal government to help North Florida farmers if a damage assessment after the recent severe storms shows they qualify for disaster relief.

In order for federal officials to declare a disaster, there has to be 30 percent loss of one crop in a given area.

"Severe hailstorms and massive flooding recently may have wiped out roughly two-thirds of the local potato crop," Nelson wrote Thursday in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  "This would be devastating for these farmers and the economy of the local community."

The Agriculture Department says damage assessments need to be done before relief can be granted.  That's expected to be done within two weeks. 

Florida's potato crop ranks seventh nationally.  The farmers in St. Johns County and other parts of North Florida produce a variety of potatoes including red-skinned, or  "new" potatoes. 

The farmers were hit by a hailstorm and heavy rains in late April and early May -- at the begin of their harvest season. Only about one-third of their crop had been harvested before the storms arrived. 

What was unusual about the recent storms was the timing.  Such heavy rains generally aren't seen until sometime in June or at the end of summer, after the potato crops are harvested

More than 20 growers have about 13,000 acres of potatoes.  According to Dan Cantliffe, director of the St. Johns County extension of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, potential losses could run between 8,000- and 9,000-acres.  He says farmers make about $4,000 to $5,000 per acre gross for potatoes.  That could amount to $45 million in lost revenue.

After the recent rains, farmers said, water stood inches above the potato rows.  By early last week, they said their crops were rotting.  Because of this situation, farmers also are concerned they won't be able to get financing for next year's crop.

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