Arkansas' U.S. senators have introduced a bill to secure disaster funding for farmers hit by spring storms, but budget constraints could prevent it from ever seeing the light of day.

“We are in a different disaster bill environment now than we were this time a year ago,” Hunt Shipman, chief of staff for the Senate Agriculture Committee, told the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at its annual meeting in Starkville, Miss.

“The disaster bill that the Congress adopted in January was the first disaster program in my memory that was ever funded by a budget offset,” he said. “We started with a proposal that was offset generically across all government spending, and we ended up with a bill that was offset from within agriculture spending.

“That's a new environment for us, and, given the current budget discussion, it probably will continue to exist, particularly in the House.”

This atmosphere, Shipman says, increases the pressure to eliminate funding for new farm-related programs — such as the Conservation Security Program — to fund existing agricultural needs.

“There's been much debate in Congress about how every time there is a hurricane or drought or other agricultural disaster, Congress enacts huge disaster compensation bills, and yet last year there wasn't much aid allocated to those areas affected by wildfires,” he said.

“Those senators are watching closely to see what we do this year, and I think any proposed disaster bill will be viewed with a different set of eyes than it would have been a year ago.”

S.1309, co-sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., has been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

The Emergency Disaster Assistance Act of 2003 directs the secretary of agriculture to use Commodity Credit Corp. funds for emergency financial assistance to producers who have suffered disaster-caused crop losses in 2003.

The bill would provide disaster assistance payments to those farmers who experience at least a 35 percent yield loss and are located in government-declared disaster areas.

Speaking to her fellow senators June 20, Lincoln said, “Cotton farming, as well as farming commodities such as soybeans, wheat, and rice, is an expensive and labor-intensive process. Severe weather conditions exacerbate that situation greatly and place our farmers at serious risk.”

Arkansas and other Southern states, she says, were hit with devastating storms that produced at least three dozen tornadoes and as much as 20 inches of rainfall. “These natural disasters occurred at the worst possible time for farmers, at the beginning of the planting season, when they need to get their crops into the ground.

“This is a particularly vulnerable time for farmers, since freshly planted crops are highly susceptible to severe weather conditions. A single day of heavy rains and high winds can undo a month's worth of hard work, forcing producers to start over from scratch and replant entire fields or even entire farms.”

While some growers have been kept out of fields by the soggy weather, more than 50 percent of Arkansas' wheat crop remains in the field, Pryor says. “With every passing day, the prospects for a successful harvest of wheat diminish. If current weather conditions abate, our farmers may be able to harvest 550,000 acres, the lowest total in over 17 years.”

Meanwhile, he says, soybeans, cotton and rice fields are under water, and crops that were planted early have been wiped out. “Over 1.3 million acres of farmland across Arkansas have been affected by the excessive rainfall. Many of these acres had to be replanted, and just as quickly as our farmers began to have hopes of a decent crop, those hopes were dashed by disasters beyond their control,” says Pryor.


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com