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Senators, farm groups launch full court press on disaster aid

Farm organizations and farm-state senators and House members have begun a full-court press to try to convince the House Republican leadership to pass emergency assistance legislation before the October recess.

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad and 11 other senators introduced a new bill, The Emergency Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2006, which would provide help to farmers and ranchers who experienced weather-related losses and high fuel costs in 2005 and 2006.

Meanwhile, 34 farm organizations ranging from the American Agriculture Movement to the American Farm Bureau Federation have written House and Senate leaders calling on Congress to pass and President Bush to enact emergency agricultural disaster assistance.

“The livelihoods of thousands of families are at stake,” Conrad told fellow congressmen and farm leaders attending a Sept. 12 rally in Washington. “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 impacted by frost, flood and disease during the 2005 growing season with emergency legislation to aid producers suffering from the 2006 drought devastating the Great Plains.

Conrad says North Dakota farmers suffered almost every type of weather disaster known to man in 2005, and 2006 wasn't much better. About the only thing growers in his state didn't see was a hurricane, but they felt the effects of the two that struck the Gulf Coast in August and September last year.

“For those affected producers, emergency disaster assistance for 2006 will be critical,” said Plains, Texas, cotton producer Ricky Bearden, who testified at a Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill hearing in Lubbock, Texas, Sept. 8. He noted that drought and hail had cut this year's Texas cotton crop in half.

The comprehensive ag disaster package Conrad introduced on Sept. 8 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 includes a 30 percent direct payment for producers of program crops to help offset high energy costs.

The bill, which is also sponsored by South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, had 11 original cosponsors, most from the Midwest. Since then, Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu have added to their names.

“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.

Congress is scheduled to recess Sept. 28 to allow members to return to their districts and states to campaign for the November mid-term elections.

Although the House leadership has balked at previous disaster bills since the 2005 weather events, House Republicans like Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kans., have begun throwing their weight behind a disaster assistance measure.

In his weekly news column, Moran said he told Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns that the $780 million in disaster aid the latter announced in early September would not help farmers who grow crops such as wheat, corn, soybeans and sorghum.

The announcement included $50 million in direct aid to ranchers hurt by drought, $30 million to preserve rangeland and the accelerated release of $700 million in counter-cyclical payments for the 2005 crops to cotton, sorghum and peanut growers. Any other disaster assistance would have to wait until after harvest and costs would have to be offset, Johanns said.

“While the assistance provided by USDA will help in a small way, it is not near the amount of help actually needed by Kansas farmers,” said Moran. “I asked the secretary to continue to work with me and other members of Congress to deliver a meaningful disaster assistance package.”

Besides the disaster assistance funding for row crop producers, Conrad's bill would establish a Livestock Compensation Program to help cover increased feed expenses for ranchers in disaster-designated counties. It would also provide $300 million in economic assistance grants for small businesses that 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 the president threatened to veto the bill. A similar emergency package for the 2005 crop year is currently included in the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill for fiscal 2007.

Farm leaders attending the Capitol Hill rally organized by Conrad said farmers need disaster assistance sooner rather than later.

“There are many producers who did not receive help in 2005 and they are experiencing another year of drought, flooding or fires,” said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau and a corn and soybean farmer.

In a letter to the House and Senate leadership, the 34 farm groups noted that almost 80 percent of U.S. counties in 2005 were declared national disaster areas, and about half of U.S. counties have been declared disasters so far in 2006 after natural weather-related disasters devastated U.S. agriculture.

The letter said Agriculture Department drought data suggests that 2006 disaster assistance needs will be well above the long-term average of $2.5 billion per year — up to possibly $3 billion to $4 billion this year.

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

“Let's make our voices heard loud and clear. Our farmers and ranchers need disaster relief and they need it now,” said Conrad in a statement issued before the Sept. 12 rally. “This is extraordinarily serious. People in Washington, D.C., cannot turn a blind eye toward this disaster.”

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