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Senate Clears Way for Disaster Aid to Agriculture

In a test vote, senators overwhelmingly supported a $13.5 billion disaster bill on Tuesday that includes flood aid for the Northern Plains and western Corn Belt. “People back home are counting on us to get this done,” said sponsor Senator David Perdue, after speaking against proposals to boost funding for Puerto Rico beyond $600 million allotted for food stamps.

The disaster bill includes $3 billion for agricultural relief, including losses to wildfires in California and in hurricanes in the South last year. A Georgia Republican, Perdue listed Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas among the states “battling natural disasters right now and last year” that would be eligible for assistance. The money could be distributed in block grants to states to use as they see fit. Additional money would be available for forest and watershed restoration and for grants for rural community facilities.

President Trump complained during a luncheon with Republican senators on Tuesday that too much recovery money was being sent to Puerto Rico, which was struck by two powerful hurricanes in 2017 from which the island is still struggling to recover. Early this year, the White House said additional food stamp money for the island was unnecessary but it now accepts the $600 million proposed in the Senate. Democrats in the House and Senate say the disaster bill “does not adequately address the needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico and other territories,” reported the Washington Post.

The Senate removed a procedural obstacle to the disaster bill on a 90-10 vote and could begin work on the bill Wednesday after another procedural vote. The lopsided vote on Tuesday is a sign of strong support for the legislation. The House passed a similar bill in January. Congress must agree on a final version to send to Trump.

Preliminary estimates of agricultural losses in Iowa and Nebraska top $1 billion. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley said it’s “no big deal” if Congress needs some more time to complete work on disaster aid because producers won’t have a complete list of damage for a while. “That (aid) money is going to be there,” he told reporters.

Asked if Puerto Rico could be a stumbling block to flood aid, Grassley replied, “It’ll have to be overcome.”

The disaster bill would make the wealthiest producers eligible for up to $125,000 in the so-called Trump tariff payments, created to offset the impact of the Sino-U.S. trade war on agriculture. At present, people with more than $900,000 adjusted gross income are barred from the Market Facilitation Program, the formal name for the payment program. The disaster bill would remove the AGI limit for people who get at least 75% of their income from farming, ranching, or forestry.

“We’re still in the assessment mode,” said Pete McClymont of the group Nebraska Cattlemen, when asked about livestock losses. While flooding hit eastern Nebraska, the western part of the state was buried by a blizzard. “A lot of calves were lost in that,” said McClymont on the Adams on Agriculture program. Iowa state Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig also said it was too early for a full assessment of damage. “The big issue we’re really watching is what about some of the stored grain that was damaged,” said Naig.

In most cases, flood-damaged grain cannot be used in food or livestock production. Many farmers store grain on their farms after harvest while waiting for commodity prices to rise. Loss of grain means a loss of income for them.

The USDA has an indemnity program for livestock losses but not for grain.

A summary of the disaster bill is available here.

To read a text of the bill, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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