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Senators continuing fight on emergency disaster legislation

You can’t say farm-state senators have thrown in the towel on their efforts to pass emergency legislation to help farmers cope with two years of weather disasters and high-energy costs.

A group of 12 senators introduced yet another bill, The Emergency Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2006, that would provide financial assistance to growers who experienced weather-related losses and high fuel costs in 2005 and 2006.

“The livelihoods of thousands of families are at stake,” said North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, speaking at a Washington rally aimed at drumming up congressional support for the bill. “We need nothing less than a comprehensive disaster bill to cover 2005 and 2006 losses.”

The latest disaster package combines legislation Conrad previously introduced to support ranchers and farmers hit by frost, floods, hurricanes and disease during the 2005 growing season with emergency legislation to aid producers suffering from the 2006 drought devastating the Great Plains and portions of the Southeast.

The comprehensive ag disaster package would provide emergency funding to farmers and ranchers who suffered weather-related crop production shortfalls, quality losses and damage to livestock and feed supplies. The bill also is aimed at addressing the high-energy prices that followed last year’s hurricanes.

Most of the original 11 cosponsors of the bill are from the Midwest, but Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu added their names to the list a few days after Conrad introduced it on Sept. 6, as did Sen..

“Our agricultural producers in Arkansas have suffered severe economic losses due to drought and rising operating costs, and they have yet to receive any substantive relief from their government," said Lincoln.

“If Americans want to continue to see an affordable and abundant food supply produced safely at home, Congress must support this emergency legislation to strengthen our economy and provide the support our farm families need to remain competitive in the global marketplace.”

“Our farmers are in real distress following severe drought and higher input costs. This disaster assistance is necessary to enable many of them a chance to keep their doors open,” said Pryor.

Besides aid for disaster assistance, the bill would provide a supplemental economic loss payment to program crop producers that equals 30 percent of their direct payment. The legislation also establishes a Livestock Compensation Program to help cover increased feed expenses for ranchers in disaster-designated counties.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has said he believes disaster aid should be targeted to growers who actually suffered losses due to weather-related adversity in 2005 and 2006.

In addition, the emergency package provides $300 million in economic assistance grants for small businesses who suffered economic losses as a result of weather-related agricultural losses.

Lincoln and Pryor introduced a disaster assistance bill last year to provide Arkansas’ agricultural producers relief from the harsh conditions encountered in the 2005 production year.

They and other senators were successful in adding the long-awaited assistance to the fiscal year 2006 emergency supplemental bill, but House Republicans stripped the funding from a House-Senate conference report after President Bush threatened to veto the bill. A similar emergency package for the 2005 crop year is currently included in the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill for FY 2007.

Other cosponsors include Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Norm Coleman, R-Minn.; Mark Dayton, D-Minn.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Ben Nelson, D-Neb.; Barack Obama, D-Ill.; Ken Salazar, D-Colo.; Jim Talent, R-Mo.; and John Thune, R-S.D.

Conrad did not mention a specific cost figure for the bill, but the Senate amendment to the Agriculture Department appropriations bill contains $3.9 billion for disaster assistance.

Johanns announced $50 million in direct aid to ranchers hurt by drought, $30 million to preserve rangeland and the accelerated release of $700 million in subsidy payments to cotton, sorghum and peanut growers in early September.

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