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Senate bill would extend ag disaster programs; drought could change farm bill, election politics

2012_0711_USDADroughtMap1


In what would appear to be the equivalent of an ad hoc disaster program and a signal that the drought may change the politics of both the farm bill and the election season, Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Tim Johnson of South Dakota Thursday introduced legislation to provide a one-year extension of the agriculture disaster assistance programs that were in the 2008 farm bill but expired at the end of the 2011 fiscal year.

“As severe fires and drought threaten ranchers and farmers across the country, this extension will provide certainty for American producers while Congress works to pass the next farm bill,” the senators said in a news release. They also released the text of the bill, and a link to state- and county-level information on the expired disaster payments.

Conrad and Baucus insisted on the inclusion of what they called permanent disaster programs in the 2008 farm bill, but those programs have expired because there was not enough money to enact them for the full length of the five-year bill.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that the new farm bill should include disaster programs that cover this year’s problems, and that the bill should be finished before Sept. 30.

Vilsack this week announced a package of program changes to speed up secretarial disaster designations:
  • A final rule that simplifies the process for designations and would result in a 40 percent reduction in processing time for most counties affected by disasters;
  • A reduced interest rate for emergency loans that effectively lowers the current rate from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent;
  • A payment reduction on Conservation Reserve Program lands qualified for emergency haying and grazing in 2012, from 25 to 10 percent. A natural disaster designation makes all qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans, but that is not the same as disaster aid.

The bill the four senators introduced today would reauthorize the following programs:
  • Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments (SURE) program, providing crop insurance for farmers affected by disasters.
  • Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), which compensates ranchers at a rate of 75 percent market value for livestock mortality caused by disasters.
  • Livestock Forage Program (LFP), which helps ranchers who graze livestock on qualifying drought- or fire-affected pasture land.
  • Emergency Livestock Assistance Program (ELAP), which compensates producers for disaster losses not covered under other disaster programs.

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