USDA's announcement of an additional $2.8 billion in aid to victims of the 2005 hurricane season may come too late for many Louisiana farmers, the state's commissioner of agriculture says.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced on Jan. 26 that USDA would provide $1.2 billion to help farmers in seven states, including Louisiana, recover from hurricane losses and $1.6 billion to help restore homes and rural communities in the storms' paths.
But Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Bob Odom and members of Louisiana's congressional delegation said the Agriculture Department has yet to fulfill the earlier promises it made to farmers after hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the state in 2005.
“If our farmers don't have help by now, it's too late,” said Odom. “They needed it yesterday. We normally start planting in early March, but many of our growers don't know whether they can farm or not.”
Speaking at the 2006 AgOutlook Conference in Baton Rouge, Odom said USDA Farm Service Agency personnel have told him that only three farmers have signed up for FSA rice production loans in southwest Louisiana.
“USDA made a big announcement about money that was approved several months ago, and they still can't tell us when it's coming,” he said. “‘Some bit of time’ is the best answer we got. They're telling farmers to sign up for other emergency conservation programs, and they've yet to distribute those funds.”
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said Johanns authorized the use of $250 million under the Section 32 program for crop disaster, livestock, tree and aquaculture assistance last October.
“These funds will be distributed through five new programs: the Tree Indemnity Program, the Hurricane Indemnity Program, the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Feed Indemnity Program and an Aquaculture Block Grant program,” said Conner, who spoke to reporters at a press briefing following the announcement.
He said producers in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas counties declared primary presidential or secretarial disaster areas in 2005 because of hurricanes are eligible to apply for assistance under the new programs. A complete list of these counties is posted online at: http://www.usda.gov/HurricaneInfo.xml.
“Another $900 million became available for hurricane relief when President Bush signed the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act in late December. This funding breaks down into several categories: $200 million for the Emergency Conservation Program, $400 million for the Emergency Forestry Conservation Reserve Program, and $300 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.” (The latter is available to communities and landowners in Tennessee, in addition to those in the six previously mentioned states.)
USDA officials said they weren't in a position to announce signup dates for the new indemnity and aquaculture block grant programs and the Emergency Forestry Conservation Reserve Program because they must first publish notices in the Federal Register and then develop regulations and software.
They said eligible producers can apply now for Emergency Conservation Program funds to remove hurricane debris from farmland. Emergency Watershed Protection Program funds for eligible projects are also available at USDA Farm Service Agency county offices.
Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., said USDA is making the new programs too complicated and delaying the signup unnecessarily for farmers who need assistance to get back on their feet.
“It's not that USDA doesn't know how to do a Section 32 program,” he said. “Ten weeks after Hurricane Charley hit Florida, USDA was cutting the first of over $400 million in checks to Florida farmers. But here we are, nearly five months after Katrina and four months after Rita, and we still don't know how USDA intends to carve up only $250 million among seven states.”
Odom says he's not sure how effective the Hurricane Indemnity Program will be once USDA completes the process of developing regulations and announcing the signup for it and the other programs.
“It probably won't help a lot of our producers who were affected by flooded fields,” he noted. “It's tied to crop insurance, and they won't cover flooded fields. We're not sure about anything because they wouldn't give any specifics or details about the programs.
“They think we'll quiet down because this big announcement was made, but we're not going away. There are issues that need to be addressed and farmers who need help. I plan to continue working with our congressional delegation until something is done.”
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., said he was asking Secretary Johanns to hold one of his farm bill listening sessions in southwest Louisiana to get a better picture of the conditions farmers face.
“I have submitted a letter requesting a hearing in my district,” he told AgOutlook Conference participants. “He owes our producers an opportunity to make their case.”
Boustany said he had been working with Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chairman of the Agriculture Committee, to develop a disaster relief bill, “but the House leadership shot it down.
“I'm continuing to maintain my contacts with Sens. Cochran and Chambliss, and Sen. Cochran has indicated this will be one of his highest priorities in 2006. Sen. Chambliss says he is very interested in providing more assistance to farmers.”
Besides the funds for farmers and ranchers, the Defense Appropriations Act of 2006 contains $1.6 billion in Rural Development program assistance for the hurricane victims. Nearly $1.5 billion is allocated to provide housing funds under the agency's direct and guaranteed loan programs.
Additionally, nearly $160 million will be dedicated to four areas; $54 million for housing repair loans and grants for very low-income applicants; $45 million in grants for hurricane damaged water and wastewater facilities; $50 million for telecommunications program assistance, and $8 million to restructure electrical loans in the hurricane-affected areas.
Conner said that prior to the latest funding announcement, USDA has made available more than $1.7 billion to hurricane victims, bringing USDA's total hurricane aid to more than $4.5 billion. Previous assistance includes: $22 million in Emergency Watershed Protection funds; $31 million in Emergency Conservation Program funds; $152 million in emergency loan funding; $239 million in rural development funding; and $1.3 billion in food and nutrition assistance.