By: JEFF BARNARD, Associated Press
The Farm Bill moving through Congress includes disaster assistance for ranchers who lost cattle and grazing to drought and wildfire, and millions of dollars in federal payments for counties with federal lands. Organic farmers would get improved crop insurance and wheat farmers help in selling their crops overseas.
The bill passed the House on Wednesday and goes to the Senate.
About 225 cattle died in Oregon in the 2012 wildfires, and hundreds of thousands of acres of rangeland burned. No disaster assistance was available at the time because the last Farm Bill had expired and Congress could not agree on a new one. The current bill would restore programs that offer grants to partially cover the value of cattle and grazing lost to disaster.
"That is good news," said Jeanette Yturriondobeita. She and her husband, Rich, run the 12-Mile Ranch southwest of Jordan Valley in Malheur County. "It will help a lot of people."
They lost a third of their 300 cattle, and had to buy hay and lease pasture more than 100 miles away to feed the survivors. With drought building in Oregon, they don't expect to put up much hay for next year and have not replenished their herd. They expect more grazing restrictions from federal protections for the sage grouse.
In Klamath County last summer, drought and newly awarded water rights led to irrigation shutoffs to cattle ranchers in the upper basin, forcing them to find new pasture or sell off their herds. Ranchers estimated they lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The bill extends for one year Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, which makes up for property taxes the government doesn't pay. Oregon received $15.5 million last year. Nationwide, the program has distributed $6.3 billion since 1977. The upcoming payments will be a little larger than last year's, about $410 million nationwide, compared to $400 million last year, according to a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
"These payments are a critical lifeline for rural resource-dependent counties that can barely afford to pay for critical government services like public safety, schools and roads," U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said in a statement. "This one-year reauthorization means Congress will once again have to break through partisan gridlock to continue PILT payments past FY2015."
Meanwhile, another federal payments program for timber counties known as Secure Rural Schools is expiring after a one-year extension.
An amendment from Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and others would improve the crop insurance program for organic farmers. It gives $5 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update the prices paid on crop loss claims. Until this year, crop insurance had charged organic farmers a 5 percent premium, and paid them for losses based on the prices for conventionally grown crops, which does not include the market premium organic crops command. As a result, many organic farmers did not take advantage of the program.
The bill would also permanently restore authorization for the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to offer stewardship contracts, which are used to reduce wildfire danger, restore forest health, and harvest timber on federal forests. The authorization was due to expire in September. The contracts are widely used on federal forests in Oregon.