Following a Tuesday (August 7) meeting with the White House Rural Council, President Obama ratcheted up pressure on Congress to pass a new farm bill calling the legislation “the single-best way that we can help rural communities … in the short term, but also in the long term.”
Obama also expressed hope that during the current recess of Congress, lawmakers will venture into rural communities to see the full effects of the drought lingering over half the country. Doing so, he said, would leave the lawmakers with a “greater sense of urgency” and prepare them “to get (a new farm bill) done immediately upon their return.”
The admonition comes after House leadership refused to schedule floor time for a farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on July 11. The full Senate passed its version of the farm bill in June.
Current law expires in late September and, with only a few legislative days before that deadline, lawmakers will be hard-pressed to conference a new bill.
Congress, said Obama, “needs to pass a farm bill that will not only provide important disaster relief tools, but also make necessary reforms and give farmers the certainty that they deserve.”
With Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at his elbow, Obama also played up the White House response to the drought as “all hands on deck.”
“We’ve already designated over 1,500 counties across 32 states as disaster areas, which gives qualified farmers access to low-interest emergency loans. We’ve also opened up more land for haying and grazing. And we’ve worked with crop insurance companies to give farmers a short grace period on unpaid insurance premiums, since some families will be struggling to make ends meet at the end of this crop year…
“So today, the (USDA) is announcing an additional $30 million to get more water to livestock and restore land impacted by drought. The National Credit Union Administration is allowing an additional thousand credit unions to increase lending to small businesses. The Department of Transportation is ready to help more commercial truck drivers to provide much-needed supplies to farmers and ranchers. And the SBA, the Small Business Administration, is working with other government agencies to connect even more eligible farmers, ranchers and businesses with low-interest emergency loans as well as counseling and workforce programs.”
The following list of drought-related actions by the government was also released by the White House.
- Use of indemnity payments for crop insurance premiums.
To assist farmers in meeting cash flow challenges, USDA has taken steps to ensure that farmers will be able to apply this year’s crop indemnity payments toward their crop insurance premiums for the following crop year. As of August 1, 2012, the sixteen major providers of U.S. crop insurance have all agreed to forego interest charges on unpaid premiums through November.
- Disaster designation regulation.
On July 12, USDA announced an expedited disaster designation process, allowing farmers and ranchers to obtain disaster assistance faster. USDA projects a 40 percent reduction in processing time for affected producers as a result of this change.
- Reduction of USDA’s Emergency (EM) Loan rate.
Emergency Loans will help producers recover from production and physical losses associated with natural disasters. The current rate was set in 1993 at 3.75 percent. Effective July 15, the Administration lowered the interest rate on loans, effectively lowering the rate from 3.75 percent down to 2.25 percent.
- Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) haying and grazing.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) allows farmers and ranchers to receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers (grasses) on eligible farmland. Nationwide, 29 million acres are enrolled in the CRP. Due to the drought, the federal government has opened up virtually all of the CRP grassland acres for emergency haying and grazing and reduced the payment penalty for haying and grazing from 25 percent to only 10 percent. Further, the (Obama) administration took additional steps to ensure that appropriate wetland and riparian buffer areas will also be available for haying and grazing.
- Grazing on federal lands.
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the USDA Forest Service are providing relief to ranchers who graze on public lands by employing flexibility to accommodate needs and conditions on the ground. BLM will issue refunds to cattlemen that were displaced by early season fires and therefore not able to make use of their allotments and the Forest Service has liberally granted permittee requested non-use. Both agencies are making vacant land available for grazing and allowing for: changes in grazing use, including delayed or early turnout if conditions allow; increased salting to improve livestock distribution; water hauling and temporary portable water troughs; and other measures.
- SBA drought disaster declarations.
To date, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has followed USDA’s disaster declarations and has issued 71 agency declarations in 32 states covering 1,636 counties, providing a pathway for small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and non-farm small businesses that are economically affected by the drought in their community to apply for SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).
- Army Corps of Engineers preserving navigation.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has published guidance to coordinate a collective Common Operation Picture (COP) to monitor ongoing drought impacts on navigation. At this time they have identified the 15 most critical river gages (of 2000+) as key monitors for navigation impacts and implemented Water Way Action Plans.
USACE will continue coordinating with Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and navigation industries on the mitigation of drought impacts by:
- Working with contract dredges to identify areas of concern to divert resources based on priority.
- Identifying available channel depths and widths to navigation industries, so barge tow drafts and widths can be modified accordingly.
- Ensuring that storage reservoirs are releasing flow to augment natural flows downstream.
- Continuing to do public and media outreach via, conference calls, webinars and emails with respect to the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers and tributaries.
- Monitoring the National Weather Service outlook on short and long term rainfall forecast to prepare for potential reservoir releases are other mitigation measures.