Future disaster funds in doubt

May 20, 2011
by DTN
Future disaster funds in doubt

Despite demands to cut farm programs, the chairs of Senate and House agriculture committees say recent natural disasters around the country show the need for continuing strong support for farmers in the 2012 farm bill.

Further, the magnitude of agricultural disasters around the country could lead Congress to consider an ad-hoc disaster package even though lawmakers have been driven to cut program spending this year.

“In the worst-case scenarios, when you see the true volume of problems, at least in the past, these ad-hoc proposals have been what comes together,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, said in a phone interview with DTN.

Right now, 32 states are under some type of federal disaster declaration. Farmers have faced flooding throughout the Mississippi River basin and its tributaries while drought has affected winter crops and spring planting in the southern Plains. One report recently cited economists projecting $3 billion in agricul tural

losses in Texas alone.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, highlighted the weather challenges at a speech to the CropLife America policy conference in Washington.

“If there was ever evidence that we need an effective farm safety net, this is it,” Stabenow said.

Farm programs were highlighted by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-WI, when talking about places in which lawmakers could agree on budget cuts. His budget plan would cut farm programs $30 billion over 10 years if those cuts were adopted in the 2012 farm bill.

Farmers face the challenge of a group of lawmakers enthusiastic about cutting the federal deficit but many of whom don’t understand the difficulties farmers can face producing a crop, Lucas said.

“Right now in my home area of southwest Oklahoma, and you go over into the Texas area, there will not be any wheat cut,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is $7.50 (a bushel) or has been as much as $8. If you don’t have anything to sell, you don’t have anything to sell.”

Though the authorization for the Supplement Revenue Assistance Program, or SURE, is set to expire at the end of September, Lucas said any disasters between now until the end of the year would be covered by SURE.

“The disasters between now and the end of the year would be covered by SURE,” Lucas said. “Once a program action is taken, the process of finishing out carries on. It’s just that there wouldn’t be anything in the SURE system after September. That’s something we’ve got to look at.”

However, Lucas said farmers aren’t fond of the program. The way it is structured, farmers could have to wait as long as 18 months to get a SURE payment.

“Eighteen months is a long time to get financial help,” Lucas said. “My producers and other producers across the country, when you ask them about SURE, will look you in the eye and say it’s a failure.”

Even with SURE, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack has already set a precedent of authorizing ad-hoc disaster aid outside of the SURE program. Prior to the 2008 farm bill, Congress typically has approved ad-hoc programs for major agricultural disasters, Lucas noted, though he couldn’t say if that would lead to a similar effort this year.

“I can’t predict that. I can’t say that with certainty, but I imagine when the water goes down, when we see the magnitude of the damage, when we get some rain again in some other areas, we’ll be right in the middle of it.”

Lucas said he has conversations every day with members on the floor from states affected by the disasters, particularly drought in the Great Plains.

In her speech, Stabenow cited some of the weatherrelated problems with this year’s crop such as heavy rains hindering planting, and flooding devastating the Mississippi River valley. Then there is the drought in Texas, Oklahoma and parts of Kansas.

“Despite all the advances in agriculture, farmers can still be wiped out through a few days of bad weather,” Stabenow said. — DTN