You are here

War spending bill also aims to rebuild farm fields

Tucked into a $162 billion war funding bill passed by the Senate this week is $479 million for two emergency programs that could help farmers and landowners in the flood ravaged Midwest clear fields and rebuild terraces, grassed waterways and buffer strips.

The supplemental appropriations bill includes $89 million for the Emergency Conservation Program run by USDA's Farm Service Agency and $390 million for the Emergency Watershed Program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, who is also on the Appropriations Committee, fought for the extra spending, which he said Friday would likely fall short of the need.

"The full extent of the damage inflicted on the Midwest by the recent flooding and excessive rainfall is still unknown," said Harkin. "Yet in touring Iowa, it is evident that there are a great deal of pressing conservation needs on the ground now in terms of damaged conservation structures and debris removal needs. To that end, this funding is a critical first step toward recovery, but I doubt this will be the final word on emergency funding for conservation. As flood damage is assessed I would anticipate a more detailed determination of conservation needs and there will likely need to further emergency funding provided."

Harkin said NRCS estimates that it will need $500 million for its Emergency Watershed Program.

That program works mainly with other government organizations but it may also help individual farmers, Dick Tremain, a spokesman for the Iowa NRCS office, told Agriculture Online. With the funding just passed by Congress and the bill not yet signed by the President, it's not surprising that the Iowa office had not gotten details on the new conservation help by Friday.

NRCS is urging farmers to assess the damage from flooding and to contact their local NRCS office.

And while you're at your local USDA ag center, it might be good to stop in at the FSA office, too. Funds from the Emergency Conservation Program can be used to help farmers pay for rebuilding terraces and many other conservation structures, with the exception of private levees, said Bruce Cordes, a public affairs specialist with the Iowa office of FSA.

"Some of these repairs can be cost shared up to 75%," Cordes said.

But it's important to apply for the Emergency Conservation Program before doing any work, he said, or you may jeopardize your eligibility for the program.

Cordes wasn't certain either when the extra money would be available, but farmers are often paid by the program after making the repairs. "Get those repairs made, and keep those receipts," he advised.

The level of cost share varies, and because it’s based on government estimates of such things as bulldozer operating costs, you may not get 75% back on all that you spend on repairs.

The bottom line, check with local FSA offices and NRCS offices soon if you haven’t already.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Ag Committee Chairman Harkin was urging Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer to act quickly on administering flood aid.

"It is vital that sufficient personnel and resources are made available to deal with the expected influx of applications for emergency assistance," Harkin told Schafer in a letter Friday. "As the floodwaters recede from the affected states, NRCS and FSA staff need to assess very carefully the need for these programs and work with producers and state, county and local governmental partners to identify needs more particularly and ensure that the appropriations and agriculture committees are aware of unmet needs qualifying for conservation assistance."

Harkin also mentioned confusion about how a permanent disaster program in the new farm bill will affect farmers affected by flooding:

"An important component of that information would be the effect on indemnity payments from the federal crop insurance program and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE) Program included in the recently enacted Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 if [farmers'] flooded fields dry out enough for them to plant another crop.

"Unfortunately, it appears that they are not receiving accurate information on these questions in all instances from local USDA officials. For example, I have learned that farmers visiting county FSA offices are being told that they would lose eligibility for payments under the SURE program if they choose to plant soybeans in a field in which they were prevented from planting corn by adverse weather. Since you informed me last week that the Department was still in the process of establishing a framework for implementing the 2008 farm bill, and had not actually started writing rules for new program such as SURE and modifications of other components of the farm safety net, FSA staff in Iowa and other Midwest states should refrain from providing information based on their understanding of how past disaster assistance programs were conducted, which may or may not be relevant to the operation of the new disaster assistance program. I hope that you will work to ensure that farmers receive accurate information about their options in these difficult times.

"In fact, since it appears that the rules for SURE and the other new agricultural disaster assistance programs will not be in place for several months, I would ask that you maintain sufficient flexibility in implementing the rules affecting payments and eligibility for assistance for losses experienced in the 2008 crop year so the new rules do not penalize farmers based on decisions they must make in the coming weeks.

"There has been a great deal of interest in allowing farmers affected by disaster the option of requesting advance partial payments under the SURE program, and also in giving farmers greater ability to hay or graze cover crops grown on land they had been prevented from planting to insured crops earlier in the growing season. I would urge you to take those steps and to let me know if you believe you lack statutory authority, or if modifications are needed to the statutory language to allow you to provide greatly needed flexibility under the programs."

Tucked into a $162 billion war funding bill passed by the Senate this week is $479 million for two emergency programs that could help farmers and landowners in the flood ravaged Midwest clear fields and rebuild terraces, grassed waterways and buffer strips.

Read more about