U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called on the House leadership to move now on the 2012 Farm Bill in order to re-establish programs that will help farmers and ranchers hit hard by the ongoing, widespread drought.
"The House leadership has expressed the opinion that crop insurance alone is sufficient," Vilsack said. "That leaves our livestock producers with no help at all and that affects hundreds of thousands of people. That is just not acceptable."
The House Ag Committee has passed a Farm Bill but Speaker John Boehner has not scheduled a time for it to come to the floor and has signaled that he does not intend to before the August Congressional recess.
Vilsack announced new initiatives to provide some relief, but said "our tools are limited" until a new Farm Bill is in place.
He said an extension of the existing bill will not work because some disaster programs have expired and they would not be restored by an extension of the bill. Only passage of a new bill can re-establish relief programs, he said.
He said the department is taking what steps it can by using discretionary authority.
Opening more CRP to haying, grazing: Additional acres in lands that are designated only as "abnormally dry" and in "moderate drought" will now be eligible for opening to grazing or haying in order to increase available forage for livestock with the exception of especially sensitive lands such as wetlands, stream buffers or rare habitats. Previously, only areas in severe to exceptional drought had the option to use CRP grass. In Kansas, there are few areas that are not at least in severe drought.
Modification of EQIP contracts: Farmers or ranchers with Environmental Quality Incentives Program contracts can be modified to allow for prescribed grazing, livestock watering facilities, water conservation or other activities to address the drought. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel will work with producers to help them implement additional practices. Where drought has caused the failure of conservation activities, the NRCS will work with farmers and ranchers to try again to get those activities in place. In the short term, available funding will be targeted to drought areas hit hardest.
Grazing WRP land: Vilsack said he is authorizing haying and grazing of Wetland Reserve Program easement areas in areas hit by drought, provided conservation practices for wildlife habitat and wetland preservation are maintained.
Crop insurance premiums: Vilsack recognized that farmers are likely to experience cash flow problems because of failed crops or severely reduced harvests. He said USDA will encourage crop insurance companies to forego charging interest on unpaid crop insurance premiums for an extra 30 days, to November 1, 2012, for spring crops. Policy holders who are unable to pay their premiums in a timely manner accrue an interest penalty of 1.25 percent per month until payment is made. In turn, to assist the crop insurance companies, USDA will not require crop insurance companies to pay uncollected producer premiums until one month later.
Thus far in 2012, USDA has designated 1,297 counties across 29 states as disaster areas, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. Increasingly hot and dry conditions from California to Delaware have damaged or slowed the maturation of crops such as corn and soybeans, as well as pasture- and range-land. Vilsack has instructed USDA subcabinet leaders to travel to affected areas to augment ongoing assistance from state-level USDA staff and provide guidance on the department's existing disaster resources. To deliver assistance to those who need it most, the Secretary recently reduced the interest rate for emergency loans from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent, while lowering the reduction in the annual rental payment to producers on CRP acres used for emergency haying or grazing from 25 percent to 10 percent. Vilsack has also simplified the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40 percent.
For additional information and updates about USDA's efforts, please visit www.usda.gov/drought.