WASHINGTON (AP) -- Farmers and ranchers who suffered heavy livestock and grazing losses over the last three years due to extreme weather have been quick to take advantage of newly available disaster relief funds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday.
As of July 2, the agency has distributed more than 106,000 payments totaling $1.2 billion in relief funds in three months, the progress report said. That's a little less than half the $2.5 billion the USDA estimated would be spent on cases from 2011 to 2014. The funds encompass several programs for disaster relief included in the farm bill, which was approved in February.
Among the communities anxious for the funds to become available were South Dakota ranchers who suffered historic losses during an unusual early-season blizzard last October. An estimated 43,000 cattle and other livestock died, with individual ranchers suffering, in some cases, more than $1 million in losses. The storm also affected farms and ranches in North Dakota.
USDA did not provide data for individual states, so it wasn't clear which were quickest to take advantage of the new program.
Forty states, including the Dakotas, have begun to receive disaster payments that expired in 2011 but were retroactively renewed when Congress passed the new farm bill this year. The funds are available to help ranchers and farmers who have suffered through blizzards, persistent droughts and other unexpected weather conditions. That includes many states in southern Plains, like Texas, which dealt with severe drought in 2011 and 2012, and California, which is still in a drought.
Most of the disaster relief programs will remain available until early next year for those filing for losses from 2011 until early 2014. But the USDA will stop accepting applications for Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program, known as ELAP, on Aug. 1.
The other programs, including one for livestock losses suffered due to drought or adverse weather, and a tree assistance program, will continue to take retroactive applications until next year. The programs will provide the same relief for future disasters until the farm bill expires in 2018.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the progress report released Wednesday showed that the relief programs were moving smoothly. At the request of President Barack Obama, he said, he expedited USDA's implementation of the program, with applications accepted in April, just 60 days after the farm bill was signed into law.
Vilsack said the agency had set ambitious goals and that it was now operating efficiently to deliver relief.
"Farmers and ranchers who waited two and a half years for a farm bill are now getting some relief," Vilsack said.