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Vilsack: House must pass drought help in farm bill

DES MOINES, Iowa — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pushed Monday for Congress to act on a farm bill that would reinstate expired disaster assistance programs for farmers experiencing the worst drought in nearly seven decades.

Programs authorized in the 2008 farm bill have expired and won’t be renewed unless the House approves a bill passed by the Senate. Vilsack pushed the House to consider the bill, which has passed out of its agriculture committee, before its August vacation.

House Republican leaders have not scheduled a vote.

“There is nothing more important to rural America and nothing more important to producers, farmers and ranchers in this country than action on this bill,” Vilsack said. “There’s no greater need for this help and assistance than now, and there’s no excuse or reason why the House of Representatives cannot take this matter up.”

Vilsack, a Democrat and former Iowa governor, toured farms there over the weekend and on Monday to assess the crop deterioration in the nation’s top corn-growing state.

Some farmers in parts of Indiana and Illinois already have seen their corn wither and die. Some have mowed over the corn and baled it for livestock feed.

Iowa is not yet in such dire straits, but conditions worsen by each day without rain. Improved, drought-resistant corn varieties and the fact that farmers nationally planted 5 million more acres of corn this year than last may help keep the year from being a total loss, Vilsack said. But, even better and more corn plants won’t be enough to save the harvest if the drought continues.

“I saw everything from significant damage to crops that looked to be in pretty good shape,” Vilsack said.

Livestock farmers in a number of states have already started selling off cattle because they have no hay or grass for grazing and the price for corn for feed has skyrocketed. Some programs in the expired farm bill would have helped those ranchers, Vilsack said. For example, the 2008 bill provided $50 million to help livestock producers and others recover losses due to adverse weather.

Vilsack said every day the farm bill is delayed increases the chances it will get wrapped up on a larger conversation on tax policy and budget cuts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already had a number of budget cuts, including to crop insurance, he said.

“I fear agriculture will be asked to do more than its fair share,” Vilsack said.

He announced new administrative measures to help drought-stricken farmers, including letting them use more land set aside for conservation programs to get hay or graze. Typically, the land must be set aside for wildlife habitat and to avoid erosion, but it may be used to feed livestock in emergencies.

Vilsack also said farmers will be allowed to sell hay from conservation acres, an unusual move permitted so farmers in areas with hay may sell it to those in areas without.

The USDA also has asked crop insurers to voluntarily forego charging interest on unpaid crop insurance premiums until Nov. 1. Crop insurance covers part of farmers’ weather-related losses on some crops. It does not cover livestock.

The USDA also has lowered the interest rate on emergency loans for farmers from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent and is helping some refinance existing loans.

The agency has designated nearly 1,300 counties across 29 states as disaster areas, making farmers in those areas eligible for the low-interest emergency loans.