Shortcomings in a federal agriculture disaster assistance program have led Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran to advocate for reforms to ensure timely benefits for farmers who lose crops to flooding or other disasters.

Cochran addressed problems with the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program (SURE) at a Senate Homeland Security Appropriations hearing this week that looked at federal programs for disaster recovery and response.

Cochran indicated that complaints from agriculture producers in Mississippi suggest that the SURE program is not working as it was intended to when it was created as the largest of five disaster programs in the 2008 farm bill to provide financial assistance for crop losses due to natural disasters. SURE is administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

“We have to bring some reality in the mix and acknowledge the complaints from farmers that this government program is not delivering benefits Congress intended to be available in disaster situations,” said Cochran, who also serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“I am open to suggestions for improving the statute and the regulations for this assistance program so that we maintain necessary safeguards but make it easier to get benefits to producers when they need help.”

Cochran indicated that his office has received complaints regarding eligibility problems created by acreage filing requirements set by the FSA and USDA’s Risk Management Agency. He has also heard grievances relating to the timeliness of disaster payments, noting that payments may not be made until 2013 to eligible farmers whose crops were destroyed by the Mississippi River flooding earlier this year.

At the Oct. 12 hearing, FSA Administrator Bruce Nelson acknowledged problems with the SURE program.

“We can’t get the darn program out there until at least 13 months after the crop year. And as we all know, that doesn’t help a heck of a lot when, you know, you’re facing bills that are inevitably there in one of those down years,” Nelson testified.

Nelson offered to work with members of Congress on “retooling, refining and reforming that program so that it could be more timely and more effectively meet the needs of producers.”

The Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on disaster response provided insight on federal agriculture disaster programs that can be considered as Congress works to draft legislation to authorize a new five-year farm bill.

More information on the SURE program and eligibility requirements are available at FSA county offices or by visiting www.fsa.usda.gov/sure.