While an aid proposal authored by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would have put drought assistance in farmers’ hands almost as soon as an omnibus spending bill is signed by President Bush, the Midwest senators’ demands could mean aid will not reach farmers until late spring or summer.

The Cochran proposal, which could still be added to the omnibus spending bill now being considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee, would provide a supplemental direct payment equal to 42.25 percent of the 2002 farm bill’s annual direct or fixed payment to eligible producers.

But a group of Midwest senators is demanding that only farmers in counties declared disaster areas by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman be eligible for disaster assistance for the 2001 and 2002 crop years.

“What we were trying to do was to get the disaster assistance out in a matter of days or weeks at the most,” said a spokesman for the Senate Agriculture Committee, which Sen. Cochran now chairs.

“There would have been no need for a signup or any minimum loss threshold for growers to have to meet,” he said. “If (the Midwest senators demands) become part of the package, it will add weeks or months to the delay in getting help to farmers, many of whom have been waiting for this assistance for more than two years.”

The Cochran plan would also provide $100 million for fruit and vegetable growers, $50 million for cottonseed producers and handlers and an unspecified amount for rice and sugarcane growers who were hit by two hurricane/tropical storms last fall. It would also reopen the Livestock Compensation Program.

But those provisions apparently were not enough to appease Midwest senators such as Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. The final aid package “will only give assistance to folks who experienced disasters, instead of the entire nation,” the author of last year’s ill-fated Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment was quoted as saying.

There would not be that much difference in the number of farmers receiving assistance under either plan, according to the Senate Ag Committee spokesman, since more than 80 percent of the nation’s counties have already been designated disaster areas by Secretary Veneman.

Some Midwest senators also have been quoted as saying they objected to the possibility that catfish producers might become eligible for assistance under the reopened Livestock Compensation Program.

That prompted one observers to say “If catfish aren’t livestock, then what are they?”

Staff members of southern senators have complained for months that they continually have to try to educate their Midwestern counterparts about southern agriculture. They may have a more formidable task than even they realized.

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