Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has joined Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in introducing legislation that would provide timely disaster assistance to farmers affected by this fall’s heavy rains, floods and other weather-related disasters.

Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry plans to introduce companion legislation in the House.

“Arkansas farmers, like so many producers across the country, have experienced unusually heavy rainfall this year, damaging crops and making it nearly impossible to harvest what little is left standing,” said Lincoln.

“Weather conditions have left many of our state’s hard-working farmers unsure if their operations will survive another year. In these difficult economic times, this measure will help ensure our farmers can continue to meet our food and fiber needs while providing much-needed economic strength to our rural communities.”

“Farm families across Arkansas have faced ice, heavy rain, and widespread flooding this growing season,” said Berry. “The impact of these natural disasters has been recognized by both the president and the secretary of agriculture in the form of disaster declarations.”

Last week, the University of Arkansas’s Division of Agriculture released a report estimating Arkansas crop losses for the 2009 harvest have risen to more than $300 million. This does not factor in the more than $80 million of lost wages of agriculture-related jobs.

In addition to on-farm losses, the report also shows a decline of nearly $162 million in economic value-added, which encompasses soy, corn and rice processing, cotton ginning and reduced household spending by Arkansans whose incomes are tied to agriculture.

The measure would ensure that producers receive relief in a timely manner by providing an estimated $1.3 billion in direct payment assistance to producers in counties declared “primary” disaster areas by USDA. Direct payments, rather than payments from the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE), are utilized because SURE is not expected to be available until January 2011. Farmers would not receive relief in time for them to plant the next crop. To date, the USDA has designated more than half of Arkansas’s counties as primary natural disaster areas.

The Congressional Budget Office has scored the legislation at $2.19 billion, which will be paid for with funds available through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

The language also includes $650 million to assist specialty crop producers, $150 million in assistance for livestock producers and $42 million to aid first handlers of cottonseed.

The disaster relief effort by the Mid-South congressional delegation was met with thanks by the Delta Council. Travis Satterfield, president of Delta Council expressed appreciation for “starting the ball rolling” for much-needed relief.

After more than 600 percent average rainfall between Aug. 15 and Oct. 15, the area-wide economic development organization appealed to the Mississippi congressional delegation for agricultural disaster relief. All 82 counties in Mississippi have been declared an agricultural disaster by the USDA.

“The agricultural disaster assistance … will bring timely and meaningful disaster assistance to every major Mississippi crop extending from sweet potatoes to the more traditional row crops of cotton and soybeans,” stated Satterfield.

USDA estimates Mississippi losses, alone, at more than $300 million, with the greatest losses accruing to sweet potatoes, cotton and soybeans.

“We have very little time left in this session of Congress, and in recognition of that fact, these Senate leaders have stepped out with a proposal which represents the only opportunity for farmers to receive disaster relief before they make preparations for their 2010 crop production loan,” said Satterfield.

“And we encourage other members of the Senate and House of Representatives to join in this effort to get this done before the Congress leaves town in December.”

Congress will be in recess for Thanksgiving until the first week in December and has less than three weeks to address agricultural disaster relief and other vitally important measures on the Congressional calendar.

The National Cotton Council, the American Soybean Association, the U.S. Rice Producers Association and the U.S. Rice Federation have collectively endorsed the relief proposal, and are encouraging other agricultural groups and members of Congress to address this urgent need.