Shellfish farmers cut off from agriculture disaster aid

WASHINGTON–While many Connecticut farmers are scrambling to salvage their crops and repair the damage wrought by Tropical Storm Irene, one segment of the state’s agriculture community is still at a standstill: shellfish farmers.

And even if state officials succeed in getting a federal disaster declaration to help other Connecticut farmers recover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture aid pipeline will remain closed for those who grow oysters and certain other shellfish in Long Island Sound.

“These guys are really not in a good place,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “They don’t qualify for anything under USDA because they’re not defined as agriculture.”

Long before Irene hit, Courtney had begun pushing legislation that would expand USDA’s definition of specialty crops to include shellfish growers, which would allow them to tap into key federal agriculture-assistance programs.  Tropical Storm Irene, he said, has only served to highlight the need for his bill.

But he’s worried nothing can be done in Congress quickly enough to help the state’s shellfish industry, which generates an estimated $30 million in sales and provides more than 300 jobs statewide.

Take James Markow, whose shellfish operation in Noank has been suspended for more than two weeks. State officials closed Long Island Sound to shellfish harvesting before Irene hit, fearing that excessive rainfall and flooding would overwhelm sewage treatment plants and contaminate the oyster crops.

“We’re shut down. We can’t sell anything,” said Markow, president of the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative. “Meanwhile, we have employees and insurance payments and rent and leases and all the other stuff that has to get paid… It’s really a struggle for us to have zero income for this amount of time.”

State officials are working to test the waters and reopen areas they conclude are safe. But the process was setback by Tropical Storm Lee, which dumped more rain on the state.

David Carey, of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture, said the bureau is sampling water now, and noted that parts of shellfish areas in Milford and other areas were re-opened Tuesday.

“We’re hoping we’re going to be able to open the vast majority either by this weekend or by next week,” he said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state’s congressional delegation have been working to ask the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for an official disaster declaration, which would pave the way for low-interest loans and other assistance for Connecticut farmers with more traditional crops–everything from corn to peaches.

But since that won’t do anything for the state’s shellfish industry, the delegation is also looking for other assistance options.

“The fact that these animals are at the bottom of the sound rather than on shore should make no difference for the spirit or the purpose of the law,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who today joined the newly-formed Senate Oceans Caucus, which will focus on environmental and economic challenges to oceans. “This problem is well beyond Connecticut in its ramifications because oysters, clams, and other kinds of shellfish are harvested up and down the coast.”

Blumenthal said he and others, including Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, are exploring whether a change in federal law was needed. They’re also trying to see if shellfish farmers can get help from the Department of Commerce, which oversees some ocean-related issues through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But Courtney said that option didn’t look good. The Commerce Department doles out disaster assistance based on results from an entire growing season, not one event, he said, and it’s “doubtful” that Connecticut shellfish farmers would be eligible for aid under that scenario.

“There are also serious questions about whether Commerce has any money,” Courtney said.

Courtney said he’s been “quietly lobbying” lawmakers from coastal districts to support his “Shellfish Marketing Assistance Fairness Act,” which would add shellfish to the list of “specialty crops” eligible for USDA marketing programs. He said he also intends to push to expand USDA disaster aid to cover shellfish farmers when Congress takes up the Farm Bill later this year or next.

Courtney, who joined the House Agriculture Committee earlier this year, said the shellfish industry has not had a strong advocate on that panel for a long time and they “kind of got written out of” USDA programs, likely with a little push from other specialty crop lobbyists.

Robert B. Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, said shellfish farmers shoulder at least some of the blame for the lack of federal recognition at USDA.

“Our industry is very disorganized,” he said, noting that there’s no Connecticut growers’ association. “It limits our budget and our ability to be effective lobbyists. We will never be as powerful as the beef or egg or milk groups who have millions to spend to defend their ag programs.”

Rheault said that five years ago, his association tried unsuccessfully to push a bill similar to Courtney’s marketing assistance legislation. But the farm groups who currently benefit from the specialty crops program lobbied hard to kill it.

Courtney said this time around it could still be a tough sell, with powerful interest groups who want to protect their slice of the USDA pie aligned against the shellfish industry.

Even if they are successful, Courtney noted, “that’s not a remedy for Hurricane Irene.”

Markow said any help would be very welcome, but he’s not holding his breath. Asked what his options for getting assistance are, he said: “I don’t know. I think it’s a suck-it-up-and-go-to-work thing.”