(USA TODAY by Christopher Doering) WASHINGTON-Farmers and ranchers suffering through the worst drought to hit the United States in more than 50 years will receive additional help from the government, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned on Monday the department does not have the necessary tools to adequately help producers.
USDA's latest assistance package will allow for haying and grazing to occur on Wetlands Reserve and Conservation Reserve land that have been impacted by the drought, including acres that are abnormally dry or suffering from moderate drought conditions. Until now only areas deemed to be in severe to extreme drought were eligible.
The Conservation Reserve, created in 1985, pays farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers to idle environmentally sensitive land for 10 years or more on nearly 30 million acres. Landowners who use the land for emergency haying and grazing give up a small portion of the rent they receive. In a rare move, the USDA said on Monday farmers will be allowed to sell any hay harvested on the Conservation Reserve land.
Vilsack, in a letter to crop insurance companies, also said he has asked them to give producers who have struggled financially because of the drought extra time to pay their premiums before they are hit with a penalty. While crop insurers have extended the deadline once to Sept. 30, he has asked for it to be extended until Nov. 1 for spring crops.
"Our tools are limited," Vilsack told reporters from Iowa after touring the southern part of the state over the weekend where he saw crops with both significant damage and others that were in "good shape."
"We are continuing to look at ways in which we can provide help and assistance."
Sparse rainfall and searing heat have left much of the country suffering through the worst drought since 1956. More than 60% of the United States is being affected, including the Midwest where crops are suffering under the poorest conditions since 1988. In Iowa, the top U.S. corn and soybean producer, all of the state is mired in moderate or severe drought. Nearly 1,300 U.S. counties, or about a third of those in the United States, have been declared as disaster areas, allowing farmers access to low-interest emergency loans and other aid packages.
Vilsack used the deepening drought to ratchet up pressure on Congress to pass a farm bill or enact other types of disaster legislation that would give the USDA a broader range of tools to help agriculture producers. "There is no greater need for this help and assistance then now. There is no excuse or reason why the House of Representatives can't do its work," he said..
The department had authority to operate five disaster assistance programs, but its oversight expired last September. Especially hard hit are livestock producers who do not have any disaster programs and cannot fall back on insurance program that exist for crop producers.
A new farm bill has passed the Senate but is now languishing in the House where top lawmakers have not scheduled a time to vote. While lawmakers outwardly are optimistic that Congress could still pass the farm bill before the current measure expires on Sept. 30, a short legislative calendar highlighted by a five-week recess and fundamental differences over such issues as food stamp cuts between the House and Senate stand in the way.
"These are steps in the right direction, and we're still assessing if there is more than can be done to help farmers," said Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Fellow Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, said the action by the USDA is evidence the administration is closely following the drought. "These are significant actions in responding to the severity of the emergency," he said. "Of course, it would help to finish and enact the new farm bill, which contains an extension of livestock disaster programs for 2012 and future years."
Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, said livestock producers are being heavily influenced by a shortage of grass and feed for their animals. Some farmers who raise alfalfa to feed their animals have seen production cut from about 2 tons per acre to 1 ton or less, he said.
"Livestock producers especially are very heavily impacted by a shortage of grass and feed," said VanderWal who raises nearly 1,000 head of cattle. "We'll still see a shortage of hay and hay prices are very high because of that but using CRP lands to help alleviate that problem will certainly help."
The measures announced by the USDA on Monday are the latest in a series of steps taken by the Obama administration in the last few weeks to assist farmers and ranchers impacted by the drought.
The bone-dry conditions, which show no sign of easing, have pushed corn and soybean prices to record highs, with corn soaring 60 percent to above $8 a bushel and soybeans up 28 percent to near $17 a bushel since June. The drought has stoked fears that higher commodity prices will inevitably make their way to grocery store shelves with consumers paying more for everything from meat to breads and cereals.