USDA takes emergency measures to help drought-stricken farms

Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Dry corn is pictured in a drought-distressed field near Edmond, Okla., Friday, July 20, 2012. The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading. More than half of the continental U.S. is now in some stage of drought. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)Ogrocki)

As the most widespread drought in 70 years gets worse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced new relief programs Monday aimed at helping struggling farmers.

The USDA is encouraging crop insurance companies to provide an additional grace period for farmers to pay their premiums and opening up more land in conservation programs for hay and grazing.

To assist farmers and ranchers affected by the drought, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is using his discretionary authority to allow acres under the Conservation Reserve Program to be used for haying or grazing in counties not affected by the drought. The CRP is a voluntary program that provides producers annual rental payments on their land in exchange for providing wildlife habitat and planting ground cover to prevent erosion. Both grazing and the sale of hay harvested on this ground will be allowed to increase the nation's supply of hay and forage for livestock, Vilsack said in a conference call Monday.

Farmers in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program will be allowed to use those lands for grazing, livestock watering facilities and water conservation. Haying and grazing will also be allowed on lands in the Wetland Reserve Program.

Annual rental payments made by the USDA to farmers for not planting a crop on the land and participating in the CRP program will be reduced by 10 percent on those lands used for grazing or hay. The payment amount varies by farm and is specified in annual contracts.

With local pastures drying up, hay has been in short supply with the price doubling in recent weeks, from about $30 a bale to $60 a bale. Emergency haying and grazing on CRP lands has already been allowed in drought-stricken counties, including those in Southeast Missouri, since early July.

Stoddard County Farm Service Agency executive director Steven Morrison said it hasn't helped much here because the severity of the drought has lowered the quality of forage, except in areas where warm-season grasses were planted.

In Stoddard County about 18,000 acres are in the CRP program, he said, and many people are using that land for hay and grazing now. "Every little bit helps right now," Morrison said. "You see livestock producers that have to make that decision: Do I go out and pay for expensive hay and feed or do I just go ahead and move them on out?"

Beef prices have been falling because of a market glut from farmers liquidating their herds. Live cattle, those fattened and ready for slaughter, are down from about $1.30 per pound earlier this year down to as low as $1.11. Monday, live cattle were at $1.23 per pound.

"The people who are taking it on the chin the worst are the livestock producers," Morrison said.

Little federal help is available for livestock farmers either because the Livestock Indemnity Program, Livestock Forage Program and Emergency Livestock Assistance Program all expired in October.

Vilsack urged the House to act on the 2012 farm bill to ensure drought-stricken farmers can get the assistance they need before House members go home for the August recess.

While the U.S. Senate approved its version of the bill in June, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson said Monday that House Speaker John Boehner is concerned his chamber doesn't have enough votes to pass the farm bill.

Congress is divided between those who oppose the USDA's nutrition assistance program provisions, which account for about 75 percent of the bill's cost, and those who are on the agriculture side, she said.

"It is urgent that we get this done. I'm just hopeful if we can't get the farm bill done, we can at least do a stand-alone bill to reinstate the non-crop assistance programs. That way the livestock producers will be able to get some assistance," Emerson said.

Congress is also looking at an ad-hoc disaster assistance bill that could provide additional relief to farmers, she said.

In addition to livestock producers, farmers who have nonirrigated corn are having a tough time too, said Morrison. Many are now looking to sell it as silage or find some other use for it because it won't yield enough for a crop this year, Morrison said. Some farmers in his area didn't get soybeans planted after they harvested their wheat this year because it was too dry. Some who did plant couldn't get plants to come up due to the lack of moisture, he said.

In Cape Girardeau, just 3.16 inches of rain has fallen since June 1, leaving the area 13.77 inches below average so far in 2012.

Nearly all of Southeast Missouri is now in the extreme drought category, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The USDA has designated 1,297 counties across 29 states as disaster areas. Farmers in all these counties are eligible for low-interest emergency loans through the Farm Service Agency. The interest rate for emergency loans was recently decreased from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent.


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