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Published September 21, 2010, 08:23 AM

Obama administration promises funding for ’09 crop losses

WASHINGTON — Fulfilling a promise to Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the Obama administration on Sept. 15 announced it would provide up to $630 million in disaster aid to farmers, mostly in the South, who suffered from too much moisture and other problems in 2009.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Fulfilling a promise to Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the Obama administration on Sept. 15 announced it would provide up to $630 million in disaster aid to farmers, mostly in the South, who suffered from too much moisture and other problems in 2009.

Lincoln, who is in a tough re-election race, had pushed a bill to provide aid to farmers, but removed it from the small business bill about two months ago after White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel promised to use administrative authority to provide the assistance.

According to a map provided by the Agriculture Department, counties in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana would be among those eligible.

Gimmick or?good idea?

Farm aid critics dismissed Lincoln’s aid package as an election year gimmick, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack justified the package on the grounds that the permanent disaster program in the 2008 farm bill did not treat Southern agriculture fairly. In Washington, the permanent disaster aid program is viewed as developed by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., and disproportionately benefits the Northern Plains.

Critics also said that Lincoln’s package, which provides aid to farmers with a 5 percent loss, would allow farmers to qualify with much smaller losses than the loss levels make farmers eligible under the permanent disaster program in the 2008 farm bill, but Vilsack said recently that USDA had gone along with Lincoln’s 5 percent trigger. Vilsack said that average adjusted income restrictions and a $100,000 payment limit would apply to the disaster aid. He added that he would use a program known as Section 32, which is part of a 1935 trade act, as the source of funds. Section 32, which allows USDA to provide funds to farmers to restore their purchasing power, is usually used to provide fruits, vegetables and other foods for domestic feeding programs, and Vilsack said he would use the Commodity Credit Corp., USDA’s line of credit to the Treasury, to replace the money taken from Section 32. He also noted that Section 32 has been used 18 times since 1999 to provide disaster aid.

Aid outlined

The package makes cotton, rice, soybean and sweet potato farmers in 1,000 counties in 26 states who suffered a 5 percent loss eligible for up to $550 million in aid. Vilsack said that several crops had been included because the disaster aid program in the 2008 farm bill was a “whole farm” program, which meant that farmers would need to declare a loss on all income to qualify for aid. The package also includes up to $20 million in grants to states for aquaculture producers who experienced extraordinarily high input costs and up to $60 million to the states for poultry producers who had lost contracts with bankrupt integrators.

Vilsack said he would “take a look” at whether Southern farmers would need disaster aid in 2010, but noted that 2010 looks like “a better year” for farmers. He said questions such as loss level requirements for qualification for aid should be addressed in the 2012 farm bill.

Defying her critics, Lincoln said in a news release that, as chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, she is “proud to fight for farmers in Arkansas and across the country.” She also said that Republicans had blocked her bill on five occasions and that she was disappointed the administration did not adopt her entire approach because it would have provided aid to farmers throughout the country.

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