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Congress begins disaster relief bills

Members of Congress have introduced new disaster assistance legislation aimed at helping farmers who suffered losses from Hurricane Katrina and from the intense drought and other weather problems that occurred in the Midwest this summer.

Some disaster bill provisions would also try to help offset the impact of sharply higher fuel prices, extend the Livestock Assistance Program and provide an additional $100 million in Emergency Conservation Program funds.

“Weather-related disasters have hit rural America especially hard,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., one sponsor of the bills. “We are hearing that Hurricane Katrina could cost the nation's agricultural sector more than $2 billion. That's on top of weather-related disasters that have already wreaked havoc on farms and ranches across the nation.”

While Katrina's path of death and destruction along the Gulf Coast areas of Louisiana and Mississippi has dominated the news for the last month, farmers in other regions have been also been hurt by flooding, drought and tornadoes.

In North Dakota, severe storms and floods last spring prevented more than a million acres from being planted, according to Conrad. “Many producers who got a portion of their farms seeded watched as the floodwaters destroyed much of their newly planted crops.”

“In the wake of the extraordinary damage done by Hurricane Katrina, the needs for food and farm assistance are unprecedented,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee. “We need to be sure that government agencies are authorized to respond to the immediate and long-term needs of those impacted by this and other disasters.”

Peterson introduced a bill that would enhance and extend the USDA's authority to assist families displaced by Hurricane Katrina with disaster food stamps and other food aid. It also provides for crop and livestock loss assistance, emergency conservation programs and other measures to address the agricultural disaster.

“When a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, floods, or droughts hit, the response needs to be fast and effective,” Peterson said. “We need to have a plan in place that looks at short- and long-term needs to help rural and agricultural communities recover from disasters.”

Peterson's bill would also provide permanent standing food and farm disaster authority that would assure affected communities that emergency government assistance will be available when it's needed, he said.

While the emphasis continues to be on farmers unfortunate enough to be in Katrina's path, American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman asked Congress not to forget those who have lost their crops or income to other disasters in 2005.

“As harvest begins, there is a mounting sense of alarm over a potential financial blow to America's farmers,” Stallman said in a letter to the chairmen of the Senate and House appropriations committees.

The letter provided examples of extreme losses that farmers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are contending with in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but it also pointed out other farming disasters that have occurred recently, including hurricanes in Florida, drought across much of the Midwest and major tornado damage in states such as Georgia.

Stallman warned that the ripple effect from slowed barge traffic on the Mississippi River has the potential to affect farmers throughout all of the major grain-producing states.

“With 70 percent of the corn and soybeans exported via the Mississippi River, U.S. agriculture does not have the storage capacity to wait out a bottleneck nor a good alternative route to ship commodities,” he said. “As you develop legislation to respond to destruction of Hurricane Katrina, we respectfully request that you address all agricultural disasters that have occurred or are occurring around the country.

“We urge you to also examine and adopt ways to help U.S. farmers affected by the transportation problems caused by Hurricane Katrina.”

He said Farm Bureau agrees with attention being focused on the most devastated areas and first helping those who have lost loved ones and everything they own and noted AFBF and many state Farm Bureaus are making donations to their long-time partners at America's Second Harvest and other charities to provide immediate food relief.

The organizations have also established their own Hurricane Ag Fund, to help farmers and ranchers in the hurricane zone over the longer term.

The Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2005, a bill sponsored by Conrad, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., would provide aid for farmers hammered by Katrina and other disasters and by high energy prices, supporters said.

“Weather-related disaster losses combined with declining commodity prices and skyrocketing energy costs are putting farmers in a financial bind,” said National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson. “This comprehensive disaster legislation is an important step in helping producers cope with circumstances beyond their control.”

A University of Missouri study says farmers are paying about 50 percent more for diesel fuel as they head into harvest this year compared to 2004.

“The agricultural sector is looking at significant increases in diesel costs for harvesting and hauling, propane costs for drying grain, and fertilizer costs for fall application,” said Lori Wilcox, energy analyst at the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute. “Current diesel prices are about a dollar a gallon above September 2004.”

“Farmers and ranchers in North Dakota and the rest of the nation need this legislation to move through Congress quickly,” said North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson said. “We are feeling this pinch now, and need action today.”

He estimated a typical North Dakota farm will lose one-third of its farm profits due to the rising costs of fuels.

Harvest is about the worst time for a fuel price increase, according to FAPRI's Wilcox. About 60 percent of the fuel costs for corn production occur at harvest.

For corn, the final cost of production is expected to increase at least $14 an acre while soybean producers' costs will be up at least $5 per acre. Cotton producers will see a $29 per acre increase. “A majority of those increases come from fuel and fertilizer,” says Wilcox.


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