Ad hoc disaster assistance bills have proven to be tough nuts to crack in recent years, and passing permanent disaster assistance legislation won’t be that easy either, judging from the first meeting of the farm bill conference committee.

A proposal by House conference committee members, who were only appointed Wednesday night, provided no funding for a permanent disaster program that is the centerpiece of the Senate farm bill.

“The Senate bill includes and funds a key initiative to help compensate farmers and ranchers for disaster losses in a wide range of crops and livestock,” Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in his opening statement at the conference committee meeting Thursday.

“The program is one to build upon and strengthen the assistance we have previously enacted in crop insurance, crop loss and livestock compensation programs. Including a disaster program in this farm bill is, of course, a signal priority for the Senate.”

House leaders, including Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, have said they did not think Congress could afford a permanent disaster program under the pay-as-you-go budget rules it now operates under.

But farm organizations were quick to criticize the lack of the program in the House farm bill proposal.

“While I am pleased to see the House-Senate conference committee finally begin the process that will result in a new farm bill, I am disappointed by the latest House proposal….,” said National Farmers Union President Tom Buis.

“The House proposal provides zero funding for a permanent disaster program which, in my opinion, is the only significant improvement in the commodity title of either bill. Farmers and ranchers are facing unprecedented increases in production costs, thus their financial risks are greater than ever.”

Buis said that with a reduced crop, producers would not be able to offset these increased costs in the marketplace. “It does not matter what the price of the commodity is if you have nothing to sell,” he said.

Congress attempted to pass disaster legislation on three occasions following natural disasters in widespread areas of the country in 2005 and 2006. Those failures led Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to begin pushing for a permanent disaster program in the 2007 farm bill.

Harkin said the disaster provision is one of a number of differences that must be reconciled in the House and Senate farm bills.

“There are significant differences and disagreements, to be sure, yet we also have a lot of shared goals, objectives and interests,” he said. “And these differences can be resolved and reconciled — and, in fact, many of them already have been in the hundreds of hours of informal staff discussions over the past weeks.”

Harkin said both versions of the bill continue and strengthen the current system of farm income protection. “Both bills address additional national priorities: filling the gaps in nutrition assistance, investing in farm-based renewable energy, helping farmers and ranchers conserve our natural resources, devoting substantial new funding to initiatives for growers of fruits, vegetables and horticultural crops — this is the first farm bill to ever really do that.”

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