Ag Policy Blog

Lawmakers Push for More USDA Drought Relief

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A group of western lawmakers called on Agriculture Secretary to provide more relief to farmers and ranchers impacted by drought. Another group of lawmakers are also pushing for more flexibility to hay Conservation Reserve Program acres as well. (DTN file photo)

A group comprised of 44 members of Congress from western states wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday calling for more relief to farmers and ranchers impacted by historic drought.

The bi-partisan letter included House and Senate members from nine states who asked Vilsack to explore all possibilities for expanding aid to producers.

"Although the extent of damages relating to the extreme heat has yet to be fully determined, agricultural producers expect these impacts to be severe," the lawmakers wrote. "We respectfully request USDA explore all potential flexibilities for additional relief within existing programs and identify other options to deliver federal relief to producers in our states so they have the resources to overcome the extreme drought and heat crisis."

The lawmakers noted that producers show suffered some of the greatest heat-related losses were either located in counties not covered by drought designations or faced losses that are not covered by drought assistance programs. The lawmakers noted additional heat waves are expected to hit western and central states and droughts are forecast to stretch through October.

The letter also encourages USDA to work with Congress to provide technical assistance as lawmakers craft additional authorities and appropriations to address the 2020 and 2021 seasons that include wildfire, drought, and excessive heat-related losses.

The letter from lawmakers comes as the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday advanced a bill to expand USDA's Wildfire Hurricane Indemnity Program-Plus (WHIP-Plus) for disasters in both 2020 and 2021. The bill carves out $8.5 billion in aid, though the bill must still be passed by the full House, the Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden. Even then, it will take time for that relief to filter down to producers even as USDA writes up the rules for WHIP-Plus relief.

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Separately, senators and representatives from Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, also introduced companion bills on Tuesday to allow for more timely emergency haying of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres as well. Currently, emergency CRP haying is allowed after Aug. 1 in South Dakota, Minnesota and North Dakota. Under the bills, the CRP Flexibility Act, emergency haying of CRP acres could be moved before Aug. 1 when certain conditions are met.

"Unfortunately, almost every acre of South Dakota is currently experiencing drought, and we need to make sure USDA has the flexibility to improve producers' access to greatly needed forage for their livestock during these difficult times," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "As a longtime supporter of the Conservation Reserve Program, I'm pleased to introduce this commonsense measure to help producers meet their forage needs during weather-related emergencies. This legislation would build on my effort to increase CRP enrollment, which significantly benefits conservation efforts and wildlife habitat in our state."

USDA currently has just under 21 million acres in CRP nationally.

As DTN's Russ Quinn reported earlier this week, the drought is driving up hay prices right now. https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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