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Vilsack addresses disaster assistance, Texas drought, FTAs

USDA updates disaster assistance fund totals. Addresses USDA ability to assist Texas cattlemen hit by drought. Pushes for approvals of trade agreements.

In reaction to a string of weather-related disasters this growing season, the USDA says measures are being taken to alleviate pressure on producers.

“There is no question the United States has been hit with a number of unique and rather significant disasters over the last several months,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a Monday (August 8) press conference. “Historic wildfires in the Southwest, historic numbers of tornadoes in the South and Southeast, extraordinary drought, and flooding conditions in the Midwest have really challenged us.”

The USDA “has been up to the challenge. Just this year, 913 counties have been declared disaster areas. (That) opens up opportunities for producers in those 913 counties to receive assistance…

“We’ve begun to pay indemnities on crop insurance. We anticipate the numbers will grow significantly but, as of today, (the Risk Management Agency) has already paid out $693 million.”

For more, see CRP changes to assist drought-impacted producers.

In addition, Vilsack pointed out the following funds paid out through USDA programs:

  • $114 million paid to livestock producers “under a number of disaster programs” set up in the 2008 farm bill.
  • $30 million made available to producers in the form of emergency loans.
  • Over $27 million provided to producers and communities in 25 states in the form of conservation resources to assist in debris removal.
  • Over the last two years, over $2.6 billion in SURE payments.

The USDA has “also indicated that several hundred producers may take advantage of the disaster set-aside, allowing them to put off their annual payments to FSA for a year,” said Vilsack. That “is in order to get them back on their feet.”

Queried on the current budget-cutting climate in Congress and the possible effect over the next several years, Vilsack said “very important and significant decisions” have been made “in terms of the overall federal budget. It hasn’t necessarily been reduced to specifics for each individual agency. But it obviously has an impact and effect on resources available.”

The USDA sees “this as an opportunity to be creative, an opportunity to figure out how to leverage resources – however contained they might be – into more effective use and partnerships with the private and non-profit sectors to stretch.

“There’s no question we’ll continue to need a strong safety net for America’s producers. The fact that we have 913 counties declared primary or contiguous disaster areas suggests there will always be a need for a safety net. … We’ll just have to figure out how to manage it properly and efficiently.”

Vilsack was asked about the government response to the current Texas drought and liquidation of herds. Does the USDA have any flexibility to offer hay subsidies or transportation subsidies as producers are forced to move their cattle?

“We don’t,” he replied. “Congress’ attitude in the past when faced with circumstances similar to what Texas (is currently facing), was to develop ad hoc disaster programs.  

“There is not much appetite for doing that in Congress (currently) – particularly in light of the passage of the 2008 farm bill, which established and set up disaster programs that supplement other ‘regular’ programs. That’s why we’ve been using the Livestock Indemnity Program and Livestock Forage Program to provide resources.”

As a partial antidote for Southwest cattlemen’s concerns, Vilsack continued the Obama administration push for a trio of Free Trade Agreements pending in Congress.

The Obama administration wants to “make sure there is a competitive opportunity for the (cattle) producers who are forced and required to sell. (We must) continue to maintain a strong market so the prices they receive are as good as they can be…

“That’s why we’ve been focusing our time and effort on getting Free Trade Agreements passed and through Congress. … The Korean FTA in particular will open real opportunities for us to expand (the beef) market significantly.”

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