After months of heated debate, Congress finally passed a $3.1 billion disaster package that will provide assistance to growers who suffered crop losses of at least 35 percent due to drought or flooding in 2001 or 2002.

The package was part of a $397.4 billion omnibus spending bill that easily passed the House by a vote of 338-83 and the Senate, 76-20, on Feb. 13. But the long-awaited vote gave growers in the South little to cheer about, farm organization leaders said.

They said the eleventh-hour removal of language providing a supplemental payment to producers, authored by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., on Feb. 13 effectively closed the door on aid to many cotton, rice and soybean producers who have been hammered by unusually heavy rains during harvest the last two years.

“Sen. Cochran got 59 votes in the U.S. Senate for disaster assistance that would have addressed the problems of Mid-South farmers and most of Southern agriculture in 2001-2002,” said Chip Morgan, executive director of Delta Council, a farm and economic development organization based in Stoneville, Miss.

Not targeted enough

House leaders did not feel the Senate bill was targeted enough to other areas of the United States, he said. “For whatever reason, the House leadership was unyielding and would not submit to any compromise on that point. The net result is that money was moved from one area of the country to another.

Morgan said his analysis indicates that the move from Sen. Cochran's proposal to the one included in the spending bill moved the money away from Southern states, except in those isolated areas affected by hurricanes.

“You've transformed the legislation into a Midwestern and feed grain program, because rice and cotton growers will not be able to access much of this disaster assistance,” he said. “The Cochran approach was more equitable, and not so much about targeting the assistance.”

Critics of the disaster assistance contend that it'll be difficult for cotton growers to prove quality and quantity losses at the 35 percent level required by the legislation. In some cases, rice growers will qualify because of near-catastrophic losses, but cotton producers might find it harder to meet eligibility requirements.

Under the legislation, growers must prove at least a 35 percent loss across their entire farm to qualify for payments. After all eligible producers have qualified for assistance, USDA's Farm Service Agency will begin apportioning aid based on available resources. Disaster payments will be paid on 65 percent of production at 50 percent of market price.

In the Mid-South, the average loss due to quality in 2001-2002 was about 3 cents per pound or $17 per bale at current prices. This doesn't come close to meeting the required threshold of 35 percent loss.

High input levels

Southern farm leaders say that reaching the 35 percent loss level requires substantial yield losses in combination with quality losses. Southern cotton growers did sustain large losses relative to field potential in 2001-2002, but county average losses weren't at 35 percent.

In addition, critics say the disaster provisions aren't as applicable to Southern agriculture due to the high-input nature of crop production in the region. A 35 percent loss to a Midwestern wheat crop, they say, isn't comparable to a similar loss in Southern cotton or rice.

A Feb. 13 letter to Congress co-signed by the USA Rice Federation and U.S. Rice Producers Association says, “While we sympathize with those who experienced devastating loss the past two years, and have supported relief for those losses, the current disaster assistance provision in the omnibus bill does nothing to alleviate the difficulties experienced in the rice industry during the same period.

Further, the disaster provision included in the omnibus package takes unprecedented steps by offsetting the provision from the farm bill.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com