USDA announces signup for disaster program

Published 12:45 am Sunday, December 27, 2009

U.S. farmers hit hard by bad weather last year will soon be able to sign up for aid under a federal disaster program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that signup for losses suffered during the 2008 crop year will begin Jan. 4.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said qualified producers will begin receiving payments next month, in time to help them plan their 2010 crop.

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But there remain concerns about how strong that safety net will be, particularly for Southern farmers, who often plant multiple crops.

In getting a disaster program included in the latest multiyear version of the federal farm bill, lawmakers agreed to limit the program’s cost, in part by basing aid on a farmer’s total income. Critics worry this could leave a farmer who lost a lot of expensive-to-produce cotton but made money on corn or soybeans harvested earlier without needed aid.

Also, no signup period was immediately set for 2009 losses. The way the program was designed, it could be a year or so before payments for 2009 losses are made.

Some southern lawmakers say that underscores the need for emergency aid for farmers affected by drought, flooding or other disasters this year. They’re seeking a package worth at least $2.1 billion, but hopes of getting that passed this year have faded. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., one of the lawmakers leading the push, said Wednesday that since the U.S. House didn’t act on legislation before representatives left Washington for the holiday break, the soonest a package could be approved is next year.

Estimates by agricultural economists show major row crop producers in Louisiana and Mississippi could lose $800 million or so in revenue this year due to late-season drenching rains, losses that in some cases compound those suffered due hurricanes Gustav and Ike last year.