Harkin Asks USDA to Expedite Aid to Farmers

June 26, 2008 07:00 PM

Pro Farmer Editors


In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should ensure that farmers affected by excessive rainfall and flooding have accurate and timely information and assistance, and that they should not be penalized in later regulations for decisions and actions they need to take to deal with the pressing circumstances in the aftermath of disaster. The American Farm Bureau Federation's June Market Update released yesterday shows that crops have incurred more than $8 billion in weather-related damages so far this year. Harkin's home state of Iowa accounts for at least $4 billion of that overall total.


"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 the U.S. Department of Agriculture 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.”


Harkin also called upon Secretary Schafer to take a number of actions that would assist livestock, dairy, poultry and egg producers to help them deal with hardships caused by current disaster and economic circumstances.

Following is the text of the letter:

Dear Secretary Schafer:


In the wake of the enormous crop damage done by heavy rains and floods over the last few weeks, farmers in Iowa and adjacent states are scrambling to get the help they need and the best information possible about what their options are. Those farmers have a range of programs, such as crop insurance and disaster assistance, conducted by the Department of Agriculture that they should be able to turn to in these difficult times, but it is important that state and federal officials work together to provide the needed help and make sure that timely and accurate information is provided about potential benefits from these programs and how they might be accessed.


Crop Insurance and Disaster Assistance


An important component of that information would be the effect on indemnity payments from the federal crop insurance program and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE) Program included in the recently enacted Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 if their flooded fields dry out enough for them to plant another crop.


Unfortunately, it appears that they are not receiving accurate information on these questions in all instances from local USDA officials. For example, I have learned that farmers visiting county FSA offices are being told that 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 last week that 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 safety net, FSA staff in Iowa and other Midwest states 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. I hope that you will work to ensure that farmers receive accurate information about their options in these difficult times.


In fact, since it appears that the rules for SURE and the other new agricultural disaster assistance programs will not be in place for several months, I would ask that you 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 based on decisions they must make in the coming weeks.


There has been a great deal of 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.


Emergency Conservation


For emergency conservation needs, the supplemental appropriations bill will provide funding to help address the most 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. 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 and ensure that the appropriations and agriculture committees are aware of unmet needs qualifying for conservation assistance.


Emergency Loans


There will also be significant need for Farm Service Agency emergency loans. The emergency loan program currently has less than $6 million in the national account. 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.


Livestock, Dairy, Poultry and Egg Producers


The recent disaster has also adversely impacted the livestock, dairy, poultry and egg sectors. In several instances, hay and pasture ground were flooded, or continual rains have damaged the hay crop. Cattle producers have also raised concerns that there are 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. 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 and deem haying and grazing consistent with the conservation purposes of CRP land.


I urge you to use your authority to provide any emergency loans or other assistance to animal agriculture producers who are in financial distress. I also ask that you expedite rulemaking to implement the disaster program that was created in the 2008 farm bill. Section 901(c) of the disaster program provides for the indemnification to eligible producers on farms that have incurred livestock deaths due to adverse weather, such as floods. Further, section 901(e) provides up to $50 million a year for eligible producers of livestock, honey bees, and farm raised fish to aid in the reduction of losses due to disease, adverse weather or other conditions as determined by the Secretary. Specifically, funds are to be made available to reduce losses caused by feed or water shortages, disease, or other factors as determined by the Secretary. I ask that if there are any problems or limitations that prevent you from assisting producers or expediting the rulemaking for the disaster program, I ask that you provide me further explanation.


In May, you announced that USDA would purchase up to $50 million of pork products which will be donated to child nutrition and other domestic food assistance programs. I applaud your responsiveness to the requests by both Congress and the pork industry. Given grain and feed prices, further liquidation of herds and flocks is expected, which if not monitored carefully, will cause a glut in the market. I urge you to follow closely any developments in herd or flock liquidations and consider additional purchases of pork or other meat and poultry products to help stabilize prices paid to producers.


I appreciate the flexibility you have shown in moving back the acreage reporting deadlines for both the Farm Service Agency commodity programs and the federal crop insurance program. Those decisions are examples of common-sense steps that can be taken to make it easier for farmers affected by recent disaster conditions to comply with program requirements yet not undermine the integrity of those essential programs. If new problems are identified as the recovery process continues, I hope we can continue to work together to identify and implement appropriate solutions.


Thank you for your urgent consideration of these recommendations and requests.






Tom Harkin





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