Farmers press Congress for disaster help for drought losses

2012-07-23T05:45:00Z 2012-09-07T12:58:08Z Farmers press Congress for disaster help for drought lossesBy TOM LUTEY The Billings Gazette

With the largest drought in a half century chewing up farm acres, the call for federal assistance is growing.

Montana farm groups are calling on Congress to renew emergency loss programs that expired last September. Forage losses to drought and fire, as well as lost crop revenue are hitting southern Montana farms and ranches hard.

“A significant portion of Montana is in pretty rough shape, the south and southeast,” said Ryan McCormick, Montana Grain Growers vice president.

Four disaster programs that expired last September should be revived to help drought-affected farms and ranches, McCormick said. For farmers, the big one is the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program. Also known as SURE, the program covers crop and livestock losses that crop insurance doesn’t cover. It was created in 2008 as part of the farm bill, but expired a year ahead of other farm bill provisions, which end in two months.

When the SURE program expired last fall, farm groups lobbying Congress for the still-unapproved, five-year 2012 farm bill agreed to forgo a SURE extension in exchange for certain provisions in the new farm bill.

Then, a dry winter gave way to the widest drought on record since 1956. More than half the United States is now in drought, and farms are hurting.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, of Montana, along with Sen. Kent Conrad, of North Dakota, and Sen. Tim Johnson, of South Dakota, have introduced a bill to revive SURE along with three livestock disaster programs — the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Livestock Forage Program and the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program. Their bill is the only attempt to revive SURE in the drought’s wake.

The Senate version of the 2012 farm bill revives the livestock programs, but if the House and Senate fail to agree on a farm bill before Sept. 30, that fix will fail. The livestock programs help with livestock and pasture losses.

The Ash Creek fire in southeast Montana burned more than 20 square miles, causing significant pasture damage and livestock losses that are still being calculated.

House Republican leaders have not scheduled their farm bill for a floor vote before the end of the federal fiscal year. There are 16 House session days remaining before September’s end.

“Montana is experiencing extreme weather across the state with producers losing crops and pasture,” said Alan Merrill, Montana Farmers Union president. MFU joined the National Farmers Union last week in urging Congress to pass the Northern Plains lawmakers’ bill.

Bob Hanson, president of Montana Farm Bureau Federation said whatever action is taken depends on support from farm state lawmakers from the Midwest and South. But farmers from those regions haven’t been strong supporters of SURE.

SURE help is triggered by whole-farm losses, not losses related to a specific crop, McCormick said. A farmer with a withering corn crop might not qualify if his other crops are less damaged. In Montana, where fewer types of crops are grown, SURE tends to work better.

Farmers worry that Republican lawmakers aligned with the Tea Party movement won’t support the farm bill and won’t vote to backfill SURE and the expired livestock disaster programs. There was talk about inserting language reviving the disaster programs into the pending farm bill, McCormick said, but some farm groups feared the addition would further sour Tea Party Republicans on the farm bill.

However, two Tea Party caucus members, Reps. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, gave yes votes to the farm bill last week as it passed out of the House Agriculture Committee. A third Tea Party caucus member, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., opposed the bill.

On Friday, Tea Party caucus member Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., joined 61 other congressmen in signing a letter urging House leaders to make passing the House farm bill a priority before leaving town on Aug. 3 for a month.

“The message from our constituents and rural America is clear: we need a farm bill now. ... We ask that you make this legislation a priority of the House as it is critically important to rural and urban Americans alike.”

The letter was addressed to House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, R-Md.

Pelosi already is calling for House action on the farm bill before August recess, but Thursday said she couldn’t support the bill’s $16.5 billion in food stamp cuts.

Whether the bill heard is up to Boehner, who has said no decisions about the bill have been made.

The House farm bill is not scheduled for action this week.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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