California farmers and ranchers are getting an almost free ride from the government at a most opportune time — in the midst of a drought that has resulted in thousands of acres of crops abandoned and significant yield reductions.

However, the ride only lasts until Sept. 16.

A quartet of key state and federal agricultural officials made a special trip to Fresno to tell growers of their serendipitous good fortune that came because the new 2008 farm bill was embroiled by political tugs-of-war for six months between Congress and the Bush administration.

California Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno, D-Calif., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, quoted Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., as calling it a farm bill that died a million deaths in the six months it took to pass it.

In the protracted debate, the deadline for signing up for federal crop insurance, a key provision of any federal farm bill, came and went.

Since then, California and others states have experienced crop losses. Normally, if a farmer or rancher did not have crop insurance, he or she would be out of luck.

However, because of the tardy farm bill, the USDA Farm Service Agency has waived that deadline. Growers who do not already have full coverage for all crops can still be eligible by signing up by Sept. 16, 2008.

For $100 per crop, farmers can retroactively insure any crop for this season, and become eligible for up to $600,000 in crop disaster assistance and emergency loans per farm entity.

“It is a no-brainer … pay the $100 per crop and get insurance for 2008 if you do not already have it,“ said one local crop insurance salesman.

That will be the only relief from drought or other weather-related losses, according to John Smythe, California state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency.

Smythe points out that in the current political climate in Washington, there will be no separate disaster relief bills for farmers. Protection against disasters will only come via crop insurance they purchase.

“Federal disaster relief is now a permanent part of the federal farm bill,” Smythe said.

“Many livestock producers in California have an extra incentive to visit their local FSA office by Sept. 16 and buy in to be eligible for the Livestock Forage Program,” said Smythe.

“That's because the qualifying D2 drought level trigger for LFP assistance has already been reached in a number of California counties.”

Thirteen California counties have attained D2 status for eight weeks: Fresno, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lassen, Los Angeles, Madera, Modoc, Riverside, San Benito, San Bernardino, and Tulare. Another 31 counties in the state are headed to D2 status and may attain it later this summer.

Separately, the Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE) program provides revenue-based disaster loss payments of up to $100,000 for producers of a variety of crops. SURE requires that a disaster declaration for the county must be issued by the USDA secretary. Contiguous counties also become eligible after disaster declarations. Currently, 53 of California's 58 counties are eligible for the SURE Program. All California counties except Del Norte, Imperial, Orange, Riverside, and San Diego are covered under the federal disaster relief program.

There is another program called the Tree Assistance Program (TAP) that provides up to 70 percent cost-share assistance for tree and vine crop losses in excess of 15 percent due to natural causes like a drought.

After two years of drought in California, economic losses to farms and ranches are mounting. Many livestock producers are finding no natural grass or forage for grazing that used to provide plenty of feed. And to make matters worse, hay, grain and other feed replacement costs are higher this year than in many years past and expected to go even higher next season.

Field crop and tree crop producers report water supplies so reduced they must halt irrigation on up to 30 percent of their acreage, according to Smythe. Some growers abandoned planted row crops to water permanent crops. Post harvest irrigation in crops like almonds has become a major concern. A lack of water this fall could result in crop yield reductions even greater than experienced this season.

“Don't wait until after the Sept. 16 deadline,” advises Smythe. “And don't forget that your deadline for 2009 crop year NAP coverage is coming up on Dec. 1, 2008. You can save yourself a trip by covering your 2009 needs with the same office visit.”

Russ Friend, Fresno County FSA executive director, said most commodity growers are aware of the one time buy-in crop insurance waiver.

“Many of these producers also produce almonds and other tree nut crops and therefore are aware of the impact of the buy-in and the drought on those crops,” he said.

“The people we want to reach are the tree fruit growers and vegetable producers who have suffered from the drought and may not be aware of the buy-in provision for getting crop insurance for this year's crop,” said Friend.

Friend and Smythe both pointed out that to get disaster aid, a producer must insure all eligible crops. Anything less than that will nullify any assistance.

Smythe admitted that USDA is still drafting regulations for the 2008 farm bill, but he warned growers not to miss the Sept. 16 deadline to qualify for whatever assistance becomes available to mitigate 2008 losses for crops that may not even be harvested or evaluated yet.

California Secretary A.G. Kawamura of the California Department of Food and Agriculture spearheaded the Fresno meeting, detailing the ongoing impact of the drought that was declared official by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year.

He also campaigned hard for support of the governor's $9 billion water bond package to upgrade and repair the state's water storage and delivery system.

Also on hand was State Conservationist Ed Burton of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service who said funding for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) was increased by 27 percent to $3.4 billion to assist farmers and ranchers install and implement conservation practices.

Burton said $263 million in EQIP funds have already been distributed in California from previous farm bills and half of that went to water conservation projects. Half of those projects, he told the Fresno audience, were in Fresno County.

EQIP is authorized through 2012. It provides up to $300,000 per entity for conservation projects or management plants. If the project has “special environmental” significance, the amount can go up to $450,000.

While EQIP funding was increased substantially, a more stringent income means testing has been placed on EQIP funding. The income ceiling is now $1 million annually for eligibility. Before, it was $2.5 million.

Overall, Costa heralded the new farm bill as one that reflects the needs of California agriculture more than those in the past.