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Southeast Will Get Most of $3 Billion in Agricultural Disaster Aid

Floods and crop-delaying rains in the Midwest generated a lot of attention, but the hurricane-hit U.S. Southeast will see the bulk of the $3 billion allocated by Congress for agricultural disaster relief, said Agriculture Undersecretary Bill Northey on Thursday. Northey was confronted at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing with complaints that the administration was not doing enough to help farmers get through the Sino-U.S. trade war or recover from natural disasters.

“It’s not going to save a dairy,” said Democratic Representative Jim Costa of California, chairman of the livestock subcommittee, in describing trade war payments — 1¢ per gallon of milk in 2018 and 1.7¢ this year — as a minuscule part of a farm’s revenue. Georgia Republican Austin Scott said the USDA had woefully underestimated 2018 hurricane damage in his state and arbitrarily prorated payments for damage this year. “I think the $3 billion is going to fall very short.”

When it launched the disaster relief program last week, the USDA said payments will be made in full on 2018 claims but prorated 2019 claims at 50%. Farmers would receive a second payment after next January 1 of up to 50% “if sufficient funding remains.” Northey said the USDA was being cautious. “We don’t know what further losses may occur.”

“Most of the [disaster] payments will go to hurricane areas,” said Northey. Crop insurance has paid for much of the losses due to flooding in the Plains and heavy rains, which meant millions of acres were not planted in the Midwest this spring. The disaster program is aimed at hurricane, volcano, and wildfire losses in 2018 and at losses from floods, including the loss of grain stored on the farm, and prevented planting this year.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the $16 billion earmarked for trade war assistance to agriculture this year were proof of President Trump’s commitment to farmers. “It was never made or insinuated that this would make people whole,” Perdue said at USDA headquarters.

The House passed, 301-123, on Thursday a stopgap funding bill that included an earlier-than-usual replenishment of funds for the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC), which disburses the trade war payments to farmers and ranchers. Payments began in late August and have averaged $1 billion a week. The bill, to keep the government running until November 21, now goes to the Senate.

Passage eliminated a brief controversy over the CCC, though not partisan rancor. House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey circulated a draft of the stopgap bill last week that did not include the CCC money but decided on Monday, after protests from farm state lawmakers, to include it. During Thursday’s hearing, Texas Representative Michael Conaway, the Republican leader on the Agriculture Committee, accused Democrats of using farmers “as leverage just because you don’t like President Trump.” Chairman Collin Peterson responded, “This whole business came out of the Senate” and that House Democrats deserved credit for stopping it.

Texas Democrat Filemon Vela, who jointly chaired the hearing with Costa, said on Twitter that “every Democratic member of this committee” defended the trade war payments. “Our caucus doesn’t need to be lectured by a racist Christian pretender who led the effort to starve America’s poor,” he said, a reference to Conaway’s proposal for stricter and broader SNAP work requirements in the 2018 Farm Bill. Conaway told Politico that Vela was “anti-rural America. … All I said was that rural America and production agriculture have been held hostage and taken as a pawn by Democratic leadership.” Vela represents a south Texas district on the border with Mexico that includes Brownsville. Conaway is from a vast district in central Texas.

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