The agreement on the $3.1 billion disaster package cleared the way for a vote on the 2003 omnibus appropriations bill, which contains nearly $400 billion in annual government appropriations. The House intends to vote on the measure today, with Senate consideration planned for Friday.

Under the bill’s disaster provisions, you must prove at least a 35 percent loss across your entire farm to qualify for payments. After all eligible producers have qualified for assistance, USDA’s Farm Service Agency will begin apportioning aid based on available resources. Disaster payments will be paid on 65 percent of production at 65 percent of market price.

The disaster provisions also include assistance for the cottonseed and catfish sectors.

The approved disaster package is in stark contrast to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran’s “Agricultural Assistance Act,” which passed in the Senate by a 59 to 35 vote. Cochran’s package called for providing deliver disaster relief to producers in counties with a 2001 or 2002 disaster designation, and in neighboring counties with losses of at least 35 percent in either year.

Under Cochran’s plan, delivery of disaster aid would have been based on 42 percent of the producer’s direct payment under the 2002 farm bill. The replacement language is expected to take months to get to farmers as opposed to weeks under the Cochran amendment.

An earlier compromise Wednesday evening would have allowed for those producers in counties declared a primary disaster county to self-certify losses of at least 15 percent to become eligible for disaster aid. Once eligible, producers would have received a disaster payment equal to 25 percent of their 2002 direct payment.

Additional assistance would have been available to those who could prove a 35 percent loss, which is consistent with the more traditional disaster program now included in the 2003 omnibus bill.

“This may offer some help for farmers and ranchers who have managed to hang on through the worst drought we’ve seen in decades, but it’s too little, too late – and it comes at the expense of other important farm bill programs and future funding,” says Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

"The truth is, many producers are already gone. They’ve left the land, liquidated herds that have been in their families for generations, or just given up. The shame is that just a few short months ago, we had overwhelming, bipartisan support in the senate for a disaster package twice this size. We had 79 votes for package that would have sent relief to farmers before they went under, a package that wouldn’t have short-changed the rest of the farm bill to help those who suffered a disaster.”

According to Conrad, the Bush administration and the Republican leadership in the House “have blocked us at every turn, and refused to support American agriculture.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com