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Disaster Aid Fund for Farmers to Get Push

Friday, September 18, 2009

Omaha World Herald, Jake Thompson

Published October 2, 2007

Farm state senators, confronting an increasing struggle to win special disaster assistance for farmers, today will push for creation of a permanent disaster aid trust fund.

The Senate Finance Committee will debate a new $6.1 billion trust fund that's been proposed by its chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

The disaster relief fund would provide new payments to farmers and ranchers who suffer significant losses from bad weather or other natural disasters.

Already they receive billions annually in crop subsidies and conservation payments.

Baucus says his disaster aid plan is needed because farmers and ranchers often must wait years for Congress to respond to large agricultural disasters caused by droughts, floods or hurricanes.

Farmers needed a more "dependable safety net," he said.

"The hard work and sacrifice of our agricultural producers should not go unnoticed or unrewarded," Baucus said.

In recent years, Congress has approved billions of dollars in emergency agricultural disaster aid.

But farm state lawmakers have had to scrape for funding each time, lobbying urban lawmakers and often tacking disaster aid onto unrelated legislation that must pass, such as spending bills.

The Bush administration has consistently opposed such emergency disaster aid, in part because it increases the federal budget deficit.

This week, acting U.S. Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner also objected to setting up a permanent disaster fund.

The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that favors steering farm payments more into funding conservation measures, criticizes the permanent disaster fund idea.

In the last two decades, taxpayers have spent $26 billion in emergency disaster aid to help farmers and ranchers, often in states where weather-related damage to crops and livestock feed is routine, says the organization, which maintains a database tracking federal farm payments.

Nebraska farmers and ranchers ranked ninth nationally, receiving $886.9 million in emergency disaster payments from 1985 to 2005. Iowa ranked sixth, with payments totaling slightly more than $1 billion, according to the environmental group's analysis.

With its nearly annual bailouts, Congress encourages farmers to farm land they wouldn't be able to without federal help, said the group's president, Ken Cook.

"You don't want to guarantee success in areas where Mother Nature says you're stretching things," Cook said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a member of both the Agriculture and Finance Committees, supports creating a permanent disaster program because it would minimize the political uncertainty that surfaces every time the agriculture industry faces big losses.

"It's going to make unnecessary our doing disaster relief all the time," Grassley said.

Also, it has gotten harder in recent years to win congressional approval for disaster aid, said both Grassley and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

Nelson laid part of the blame on the Bush administration. "They've fought us time and again," he said.

Nelson, who has backed creation of a permanent disaster fund for several years, said it would make it easier to handle extreme weather events such as the recent multiyear drought in the Great Plains.

A disaster aid fund would help fill in gaps in crop insurance payments farmers receive for crop losses, he said. Those payments are based on annual crop yields over time, so when there are multiple years or low or no yields, the crop insurance payments shrink.

If anything, Nelson said, the Baucus plan may not provide enough money.

Tara Smith, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, echoed Nelson. She noted that over the last 18 years, Congress has approved emergency disaster aid that averages $3.2 billion a year.

The Baucus plan would provide roughly $1.2 billion a year, she said, "which means we'll just have to continue with ad hoc disaster aid."

Still, the Farm Bureau strongly supports creating a permanent fund, as does the National Farmers Union, the nation's second-largest farm organization.

The reason, said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, is: "Every single year there are still agriculture producers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee is working on a major new farm bill, has called the permanent disaster aid plan a bad policy. He expects, however, that it will be added as an amendment to the 2007 farm bill when it reaches the Senate floor for debate, an aide said.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., has said the next farm bill should address the need for Congress' repeated approval of emergency disaster aid.

In July, the House passed a $286 billion farm bill, which didn't address permanent disaster aid.

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