USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Administrator Bruce Nelson announced that USDA is accepting comments on a proposed rule to streamline the process for its Secretarial Disaster Designation, which will allow farmers and ranchers devastated by natural disaster to obtain assistance more quickly. The improvements outlined in the proposed rule aim to cut the time to make a disaster designation by as much as 70 percent. Designating disaster counties is a key step to authorizing disaster assistance for some of the programs administered by USDA.

“America’s farmers and rural communities are vitally important to our nation’s economy, producing the food, feed, fiber and fuel that continue to help us grow,” Nelson said. “Therefore, it’s crucial that we help farmers remain productive through difficult times. When disaster strikes, this proposal will help us provide assistance more quickly, streamlining processes from six steps to two. That’s the kind of improvement we need to make.”

A natural disaster designation makes all qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for a variety of assistance from USDA, including low interest emergency loans and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program. The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to designate disaster counties to make disaster assistance programs available to farmers and ranchers.

Currently, designations require a state governor or Indian tribal council to initiate a disaster designation through a formal request of the Secretary. The process has been in place for more than two decades and regulations have not been substantively revised since 1988.

The proposed rule for Secretarial Disaster Designations would: 1) streamline the USDA Secretarial designation process from a six-step process to a two-step process, 2) expedite and simplify the disaster designation process for severe drought occurrences by using the US Drought Monitor as a tool to automatically trigger disaster areas with no further documentation, and 3) remove the requirement that a request for a disaster designation be initiated by a state governor or Indian tribal council. However, the rule still allows a state governor or Indian tribal council to request a Secretarial Disaster Designation.

The proposed rule, which will appear in the Federal Register on Nov. 14, 2011, at www.regulations.gov, has a 60-day comment period. Comments on the proposed rule must be submitted no later than Jan. 13, 2012, to be considered.