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Disaster relief passes Senate committee

As part of an emergency supplemental bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed disaster relief for farmers on April 5. The $106 billion bill, primarily aimed to fund wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide Gulf Coast hurricane relief, allocates some $4 billion to farmers.

Aimed at lessening the impact of higher input costs, the $4 billion will provide 30 percent of a direct payment for farmers enrolled in the farm program for the 2005 crop. According to reports, it will also provide USDA grants to states to provide agricultural market and economic assistance.

The amendment also provides crop production loss assistance in a manner similar to previous disaster programs, including a payment rate of 50 percent of the established price of the crop if a farmer suffered a yield loss of at least 35 percent.

The bill “isn’t perfect,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., in a conference call with reporters following the committee vote. “Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and I wanted a 100 percent solution (for producers) and this will be closer to a 30 percent solution.”

Since it’s only 30 percent, any potential payment “won’t make (farmers) whole,” said Pryor. “But the goal is to keep farmers in business for another year.”

Producers are in “great distress. Last year was terribly difficult. There was a drought, hurricane damage and barge disruption issues, high energy prices, and low commodity prices. Unlike most businesses, farmers can’t pass these costs on to others. They’re on a commodity market price, and what they get is what they get.”

Echoing Pryor, Lincoln said she was “pleased that the Senate Appropriations Committee recognized the need to include this much-needed disaster assistance package today because last year producers across the country were forced to endure one of the most expensive crop years in recent memory.”

Pryor said he’d heard from farmers, banks and lending institutions across Arkansas urging such assistance. “It’s almost impossible for a farmer to make ends meet given last year’s economics.”

While the effort to get farmers disaster relief was bipartisan (24 senators, both Democrat and Republican, were involved) Pryor said there’s no guarantee the bill will pass the House.

“I need to tell you, in very plain English, the lay of the land. I don’t mean this to be a criticism of President Bush, but it’s the truth. In my opinion, if President Bush wants this relief for farmers, they’ll get it. If he doesn’t want the relief, they won’t get it. It’s that simple. It’s in his hands.

“I feel confident it can pass through the Senate. I doubt it will pass the House unless President Bush says he wants it to. That’s because behind the scenes, the White House has been very persistent in not helping farmers get relief. I’m very disappointed in that, but I have to call it like I see it. That’s the way it’s been.”

Lincoln said, “While this is a positive step forward, obstacles remain to final passage of agriculture disaster assistance in Congress. I plan to continue to do everything I can to see that this package remains a priority as we move forward.”

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