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Harkin seeks ‘flexibility’ in USDA disaster decision-making

Farmers in Iowa and other states affected by flooding should not be “penalized” for having to make decisions dealing with crop losses that could come back to haunt them when USDA finishes writing the regulations for the new farm bill.

Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says USDA should allow flexibility in implementing the rules affecting payments and eligibility for assistance for losses experienced in the 2008 crop year.

He also asked USDA officials to make sure farmers have accurate and timely information for dealing with those losses, which an American Farm Bureau Federation analysis says could reach $8 billion. Harkin’s Iowa could account for at least $4 billion of that overall amount.

“In the wake of the enormous crop damage done by floods and disastrous weather over the last few weeks, Iowa farmers are scrambling to get the best information possible about what their options are for their crops in fields that are flooded or otherwise damaged by recent events,” said Harkin.

“Those farmers have a range of programs conducted by USDA that they should be able to turn to in these difficult times, but it is important that state and federal officials work together to make sure that timely and accurate information and assistance is provided about potential benefits from these programs and how they might be accessed.”

(Besides those in Iowa, farmers in Missouri, western Illinois and in the Mid-South could also be affected as rising water levels threaten crops on the river side of the levee systems in those areas.)

Harkin also called on Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to assist livestock, dairy, poultry and egg producers to help them deal with hardships caused by the current disaster and economic circumstances.

One area singled out by the senator would be the effect on indemnity payments from the federal crop insurance program and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program included in the 2008 farm bill – if flooded fields dry out enough for farmers to plant another crop.

“Unfortunately, it appears they are not receiving accurate information on these questions in all instances from local USDA officials,” said Harkin. “I have learned that farmers visiting county FSA offices are being told they would lose eligibility for payments under the SURE program if they choose to plant soybeans in a field in which they were prevented from planting corn by adverse weather.

“Since you informed me the Department was still in the process of establishing a framework for implementing the 2008 farm bill and had not actually started writing rules for new program such as SURE and modifications of other components of the farm bill, FSA staff should refrain from providing information based on their understanding of how past disaster assistance programs were conducted, which may or may not be relevant to the operation of the new disaster assistance program.”

Since the rules for SURE and the other new agricultural disaster assistance programs may not be in place for several months, Harkin asked that USDA maintain sufficient flexibility in implementing the rules affecting payments and eligibility for assistance for losses experienced in the 2008 crop year so the new rules do not penalize farmers.

Some have expressed interest in allowing farmers affected by disaster the option of requesting advance partial payments under the SURE program, and also in giving farmers greater ability to hay or graze cover crops grown on land they had been prevented from planting to insured crops earlier in the growing season.

“I would urge you to take those steps and to let me know if you believe you lack statutory authority, or if modifications are needed to the statutory language to allow you to provide greatly needed flexibility under the programs,” said Harkin.

For emergency conservation needs, the supplemental appropriations bill passed by Congress before the July 4 recess will provide funding to help address critical needs under both the Emergency Conservation Program and the Emergency Watershed Program.

“It is vital that sufficient personnel and resources are made available to deal with the expected influx of applications for emergency assistance,” said Harkin. “As the floodwaters recede from the affected states, NRCS and FSA staff need to assess very carefully the need for these programs and work with producers and state, county and local governmental partners to identify needs more particularly.

Farmers who qualify for USDA Farm Service Agency emergency loans could be disappointed unless action is taken by USDA and the agriculture and appropriations committees in Congress, Harkin noted.

“The emergency loan program currently has less than $6 million in the national account,” he said. “I ask that you work with the appropriations and agriculture committees in both the House and Senate to ensure an adequate funding level for the Emergency Loan Program. Additionally I ask that the Farm Service Agency provide adequate staffing to help process emergency loan applications.

In some instances, hay and pasture ground have been flooded or continual rains have damaged the hay crop. Cattle producers have also raised concerns about fewer acres of hay this year, which compounded with wet weather will further exacerbate feed availability and cost concerns.

“Disaster conditions have also seriously impacted the number of soybean and corn acres, which has caused a run-up in feed prices,” Harkin said. “Feed availability and high feed prices could jeopardize the survival of many producers this year.

“With the loss of crops compounding the problems of low supplies and high costs of feed, it is important to allow immediate access to CRP land for grazing. The negative impact to wildlife would be minimal, if the immediate access involves grazing only with CRP opened up to haying and continued grazing after local USDA officials have fully examined and evaluated the situation.”

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