There is no question that the United States has been hit with a number of unique, significant and unprecedented disasters over the past several months: historic wildfires in the Southwest, record numbers of tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest, extraordinary drought, and flooding. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke with reporters Monday to discuss the challenges that these events have brought, and he says that USDA has been up to the challenge.
"In just this year 913 counties have been declared Secretarial disaster areas," Vilsack said. "That opens up opportunities for producers in those 913 counties to receive assistance; that's across 26 states."
Vilsack says USDA has begun to pay indemnities on crop insurance and anticipate them to grow significantly, but as of Monday the Risk Management Agency has already paid out $693 million. In addition $114 million has been paid out to livestock producers under a number of disaster programs under the 2008 Farm Bill. Also $30 million has been made available for emergency loans and $27 million has been provided in conservation resources to assist producers in clearing debris from their land.
"It's not just the RMA and FSA offices or NRCS that has been involved in disaster assistance," Vilsack said. "We've also been working through our nutrition assistance programs to provide 1.1 million people in 466,000 households across 11 states that have been hit hard with nutrition assistance from our disaster SNAP program."
Vilsack also acknowledged that these times have been difficult particularly on ranchers and farmers in drought stricken areas. The Secretary took this opportunity to announce changes that have been made to the Conservation Reserve Program. He told reporters that CRP has been modified in two significant ways as a result of producers suffering from drought.
"First, the period normally allowed for emergency grazing lasts through Sept. 30," Vilsack said. "For this calendar year FSA is going to permit farmers and ranchers in drought stricken states, who have been approved for emergency grazing, to extend the emergency grazing period for an additional month to Oct. 31, 2011 without any additional payment reduction."
The other change is that the Farm Service Agency will allow producers nationwide to utilize harvested hay from expiring CRP acres when those acres are being prepared for fall seeded crops. Prior to this modification harvested hay had to be destroyed. Now it can be fed, sold or donated, but those utilizing this option will have rental payments reduced by 25%.
"Unlike the extension of the emergency grazing, which is a month period of time in this calendar year, 2011, the opportunity to utilize harvest hay from expiring CRP acres is a permanent policy change that will apply not just in 2011 but also in years to come," Vilsack said.
Vilsack urged producers who want to know more about what USDA has been engaged in following these disasters to visit www.usda.gov/disaster. He says there is also a government wide site that provides information on additional programs and help at www.disasterassitance.gov.