WASHINGTON – President Bush signed a $14.4-billion disaster assistance package for U.S. farmers who experienced weather-related crop losses during the 2003 or 2004 growing seasons and in 2005 for losses that are a direct result of the 2004 hurricanes.

Congress passed the legislation last week before departing Washington so that members could campaign for the Nov. 2 elections. Passage came after House Agriculture Committee members succeeded in expanding a Bush administration proposal that would have provided aid only to farmers in areas hit by hurricanes.

Agriculture Committee members said the crop loss disaster portion of the legislation will provide financial aid to producers on a farm incurring qualifying crop or quality losses – other than producers of sugarcane – due to damaging weather or related conditions for either the 2003, 2004 or 2005 crop. Program benefits will not be prorated.

To be eligible for compensation, farmers must have lost at least 35 percent of their historical yield due to drought, floods, hurricanes or other natural disasters in either 2003 or 2004 or 2005 (from 2004 hurricane damage). Farmers with eligible losses of insured crops will be compensated at 65 percent of crop insurance market price elections; farmers with eligible losses to uninsured crops (for which crop insurance is available) will be paid at 60 percent of the crop insurance market price elections and must agree to purchase crop insurance for the next two crop years.

Benefits are limited to $80,000 per person, and those with adjusted gross incomes of greater than $2.5 million in 2003 are not eligible. The bill also limits financial assistance to no greater than 95 percent of what the crop's value would have been in the disaster's absence.

In addition to other specific agricultural assistance, the bill provides $10 million in assistance to producers and first handlers of the 2004 crop of cottonseed located in counties receiving a presidential disaster declaration in 2004 due to hurricanes. These funds were designated as emergency spending and do not have to be offset by reduced spending for other programs

A summary of the disaster assistance package can be viewed on the House Agriculture Committee's web site at: http://agriculture.house.gov/info/AgDisasterAsst%2010-04.pdf. e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com