Never Let a Good Disaster Go to Waste

DC Dialogue

Drought puts the heat on to pass a farm bill and provide disaster aid.

Published on: August 10, 2012

Campaign season is among us and it’s almost cynical that there is a drought impacting the country heading into the election cycle. It always makes candidates look better if they’re handing out money.

Don’t get me wrong. The impact is devastating and there are many steps the government can take to provide some relief. But in the end, farmers don’t want a handout, they want certainty that a long-term farm bill brings.

Following a meeting with the White House Rural Council Aug. 7, President Barack Obama announced additional steps to help farmers and livestock producers deal with the historic drought. He also pushed for Congress to pass a farm bill when it returns from its recess.

For the past several weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unveils a bit more money or assistance to help with the disaster.

The latest round included $30 million in assistance by using $16 million in existing funds from USDA’s Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought. In addition, USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) will transfer $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP). ECP provides emergency funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought. ECP also provides resources to help producers restore livestock fences. Read more about the NRCS drought assistance.

Within the last month (Aug. 1 announcement, July 23 announcement), USDA has opened the Conservation Reserve Program to emergency haying and grazing, has lowered the borrower interest rate for emergency loans, and has called on crop insurance companies to provide more flexibility to farmers. The Department of the Interior has provided additional grazing flexibility on federal lands and the Small Business Administration is working to help with access to investment capital and credit in affected communities.

Sen. Pat Roberts, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, applauded these actions but called for still more assistance to help those in need. Roberts sent a letter, signed by Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee, to Vilsack highlighting several ways Vilsack and the Obama administration can help producers, including approving a limited irrigation crop insurance policy, keeping producers apprised of crop insurance rules, providing guidance to producers and elevators, keeping producers informed of crop contaminates, directing crop adjusters to areas most in need, possibly reimbursing transportation of livestock to new grazing locations and getting water to livestock among other requests.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, and Vilsack met with local farmers and agribusinesses in Michigan Aug. 6 to discuss support following this year's record-setting drought.

Both the Senate’s and House Agriculture Committee’s farm bill offer adequate disaster assistance. Stabenow continues to remind others that her Senate farm bill “provides the immediate relief producers need to battle drought and disaster and also gives farmers the long-term certainty and additional tools they need to keep growing and creating jobs.”

Stabenow is up for re-election this fall and although ahead in her race, she will benefit from securing passage of a five-year farm bill.

Congress started its five-week recess last week and Congressional members are hearing from their constituents on the impact of this year’s drought.

Speaking to the Normal, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas said, “For the wrong reason the right thing is going to happen. This horrendous drought from here across Indiana, from here to Colorado back to the Rio Grande River will cause members, when they’re home over this five week break period, just as we are, to pay attention to what’s going on,” Lucas said. “Suddenly, agriculture will matter again.”

Earlier in the week President Obama called on Congress to pass a farm bill as quickly as possible. He said, "That's the single best way to help rural communities both in the short term and in the long term." He said he has seen "good bipartisan work" on the legislation so far and urged lawmakers to do more.

“My hope is that Congress, many of whom will be traveling back to their districts, in some cases in rural communities, and see what’s taking place there, will feel a greater sense of urgency and be prepared to get this done immediately upon their return,” Obama said.