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Southern Farmers Seek Drought Relief

posted on December 14, 2007


(AP) Congress plans to extend a disaster relief deadline so farmers hit by drought this year can get cash assistance to offset losses, Democratic lawmakers said. The extension _ estimated to cost some $600 million _ will be included in a massive spending bill that lawmakers are expected to take up this week. Farmers and ranchers nationwide would be eligible, but the extension would be particularly beneficial to Southern growers facing one of the worst droughts on record. Many farmers in the region already are eligible for low-cost loans. But the government would actually write them checks under the proposed legislation. "This relief package, if the president will sign it into law, would be welcome holiday news for many of our farmers," said Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat. Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation allowing farmers to get emergency payments for losses in one of three years between 2005 and 2007. The legislation included a cutoff of Feb. 28, 2007, meaning that millions of dollars in losses from the ongoing drought or from this year's late spring freeze were not eligible. The new language would extend the deadline through the end of 2007. "We need that to be included," said Tas Smith, a legislative specialist with the Georgia Farm Bureau. "This has been the worst we've seen in Georgia since we can remember." To be eligible for the aid, producers must be in declared disaster areas and have incurred significant losses. Crop aid covers up to 42 percent of established market prices. Livestock programs have different rules, but there is an $80,000 per-person cap in each program. Farm advocates have emphasized that the government assistance covers only part of farmers' losses. Farmers can apply for only one year's losses even if they have been hurt, for example, by a freeze in 2007 and by drought in 2006. Davis said farmers who already have applied for aid from 2005 or 2006 losses will have the option of changing their application to cover 2007 instead. The original legislation, signed by President Bush in May, had an estimated price tag of $3 billion. While the farm aid enjoys broad support, the fate of the expansion proposal ultimately will rest on Democratic and Republican efforts to reach a compromise spending bill. Some Republicans _ including the White House _ have criticized the measure as too costly. Specifically, the Bush administration has said farmers can get help through existing programs such as loans or subsidized crop insurance and that disaster funding is not necessary. The White House has said it will oppose new funding unless it is offset with cuts in the five-year farm bill that Congress is considering. Cotton was once touted as a promising alternative crop for Kansas farmers, and cotton gins were built to handle the increased acreage as farmers took to the idea. But a government report issued this week showed the state's cotton crop this season was reduced by more than half from last year as farmers returned to more profitable grain crops, such as corn. "If you are in agriculture, you are used to this up and down," said Gene Latham, customer manager at the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Cooperative in Winfield. "You have to play things closer to the vest and watch what you do, but you are still going to be in good shape with continued production." The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported in its December crop production forecast that Kansas will harvest about 45,000 acres of cotton. That is well below the 110,000 acres harvested a year earlier. High yields averaging 533 pounds per acre were not enough to offset the decline, the report released Tuesday showed. Latham blamed the decline in planted acres of cotton on high grain prices. Cotton prices have gone up, but have not made the huge climb that grain prices have made. However, Latham was optimistic that many farmers will eventually return to planting cotton, especially in arid western Kansas, because input costs such as fertilizer and irrigation are so much higher for grain crops. Kansas has four cotton gins. Latham's gin in Winfield, built in 1996, is the oldest, with another gin in Anthony built in 1999. The others — located in Moscow and Cullison — were built within the past four years. While the decline in production has affected his gin's revenues, which are based on volume, Latham said he anticipated no layoffs at the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Cooperative. Before the sharp decline this season, the total acres of cotton planted in Kansas had generally shown steady growth since the early 1980s, when between just 400 and 800 acres of cotton were harvested. By 1992, harvested acreage totaled 2,500 acres. Kansas has remained a relatively small player in the production of the U.S. cotton crop, which has also declined. The nation's forecast cotton production of 19 million 480-pound bales is down 12 percent from last year's 21.6 million bales, NASS reported. The more modest cotton crop this season comes in spite of forecasted record yields nationwide of 864 pounds per acre. About 10.5 million acres of cotton were harvested across the nation, down 17 percent from last year.


Tags: agriculture drought Georgia news rain water weather