USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack today designated 172 additional counties in 15 states as primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. To date, USDA has designated 1,792 counties as disaster areas --1,670 due to drought.
Earlier this week, President Obama and Secretary Vilsack traveled to Iowa to announce USDA's intent to purchase up to $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken, and catfish for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks, which will help relieve pressure on American livestock producers and bring the nation's meat supply in line with demand.
Vilsack also announced today the availability of up to $5 million in grants to evaluate and demonstrate agricultural practices that help farmers and ranchers adapt to drought. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is taking applications for Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) to help producers build additional resiliency into their production systems. NRCS is offering the grants to partnering entities to evaluate innovative, field-based conservation technologies and approaches. These technologies and/or approaches should lead to improvements such as enhancing the water-holding capacity in soils and installing drought-tolerant grazing systems, which will help farms and ranches become more resilient to drought. Visit www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information.
Additionally, in response to a request from five National Organic Program (NOP) certifying agents, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) today announced that USDA will grant a temporary variance from NOP's pasture practice standards for organic ruminant livestock producers (Sections 205.237(c) and 205.240 of the USDA organic regulations) in 16 states in 2012. The following restrictions apply: this temporary variance applies to non-irrigated pasture only; producers must supply at least 15% of their dry matter intake (on average) from certified organic pasture; this temporary variance applies to the 2012 calendar year only; and this temporary variance covers only counties that have been declared as primary natural disaster areas by the Secretary of Agriculture in 2012. Granting a temporary variance for 2012 from the pasture practice standards is necessary in order to allow organic ruminant livestock producers to continue to be compliant with the program regulations after the severe drought ends and pasture forage becomes available. Temporary variance requests that are outside the scope of this variance will be considered on a case by case basis.
Last week, President Obama convened his White House Rural Council to review Executive Branch response actions and to develop additional policy initiatives to assist drought-stricken Americans. Following the meeting, the White House announced a number of new measures the Administration is taking. The President stressed the need for the entire Administration to continue to look at further steps it can take to ease the pain of this historic drought.
Within the last month, USDA has opened the Conservation Reserve Program to emergency haying and grazing, lowered the borrower interest rate for emergency loans, and worked with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers. USDA has also announced:
- Authorized $16 million in existing funds from its Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.
- Initiated transfer of $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and ranchers rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought.
- Authorized haying and grazing of Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easement areas in drought-affected areas where haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands.
- Lowered the reduction in the annual rental payment to producers on CRP acres used for emergency haying or grazing from 25% to 10% in 2012.
- Simplified the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40%.