House and Senate negotiators approved a fiscal 2001 agricultural appropriations bill that provides $3.6 billion in emergency relief for U.S. farmers and ranchers and some relief on reopening trade with Cuba.
The $3.6 billion is an estimate of how much crop loss and disaster assistance farmers will need to help them recover from severe drought conditions this summer. The funds will not be pro-rated among farmers as in previous years.
"The farmers of this country continue to work hard to provide a safe and abundant food supply while battling difficulties on every front," said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who, as chairman of the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, wrote much of the language in the conference report.
"This bill will respond to their needs by providing emergency assistance to compensate for losses, including those farmers in Mississippi who have suffered from drought problems this year."
The House and Senate were expected to vote on the conference report as soon as they returned from the Oct. 9 Columbus Day recess. If they approve, it would be sent to the president for his signature.
Farm organizations applauded the conference report and singled out Cochran, House Ag Appropriations Chairman Joe Skeen, R-N.M., and Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, for praise for their work on the legislation.
"Producers in many areas of the Cotton Belt have had disastrous weather again," said National Cotton Council President Robert E. McLendon. "Their costs are higher, yields have been cut and the overall quality of their crop will be poorer than normal. This assistance will allow many producers to operate next year."
McLendon, a producer from Leary, Ga., said the Council is pleased that Congress had provided sufficient funds so that quantity and quality losses could be covered with out another pro-ration of benefits. Producers will also be allowed to apply for assistance for 1999 crop quality losses.
For 2000, as in previous years, growers must have experienced crop losses of at least 35 percent to qualify for the assistance payments. FSA officials were unable to give an estimate of how soon those payments might be available.
Earlier, Congress approved supplemental Agricultural Market Transition Act or AMTA payments totaling $5.5 billion to help compensate for market losses in 2000. But Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told a House Agricultural Committee hearing in late September that farmers could sustain weather losses of more than $2.2 billion in 2000.
Besides the $3.6 billion for crop losses, the bill includes $490 million for assistance to livestock producers and $473 million for dairy assistance.
"The quality provisions in this bill are designed to more accurately measure the actual income losses sustained by producers," said McLendon.
"This is a new approach that should be welcomed by producers and the industry's infrastructure for its recognition of the financial losses of producers who harvest their crops."
USDA's Farm Service Agency is expected to develop procedures for filing for the new disaster assistance program and for determining quality losses in the next several weeks. The appropriations bill also provides $50 million to help FSA deliver the assistance.
The bill also contains language sponsored by Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., and Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., that raises the per person limit on marketing loan gains from $75,000 to $150,000. And conferees inserted a one-year moratorium on enforcement of a debt collection provision that affected eligibility for loans and other program benefits.
Of special interest to cotton producers is a provision that provides $78 million in federal cost share funds for the Boll Weevil Eradication Program. Although $59 million of those initially were designated as emergency spending, the bill adds that amount to the budget baseline for federal programs.
Much of the $59 million will be used to help states that have had cost overruns in their eradication programs because of a series of mild winters that have led to little, if any, overwintering mortality for the pest.
Other spending in the bill: - $873 million for conservation programs at USDA, an increase of $69 million from last year. The bill authorizes the enrollment of an additional 100,000 acres in the Wetlands Reserve Program and authorizes the secretary of agriculture to continue the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.
- $1.88 billion for agriculture research, education and Extension programs, an increase of $104 million over last year. USDA's Agriculture Research Service will receive $898 million and the activities of the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service are funded at $981.6 million.
- $3.09 billion in authorized loan levels for agricultural credit programs for farmers, a $14 million increase over last year.
- $5.07 billion for rural housing loans and $680 million for rural housing rental assistance. In addition, rural economic and community development programs will receive $644.4 million for loans and grants for rural water and sewer facilities.
- $696.7 million for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an increase of $47.6 million from last year and $8.5 million more than the president's budget requested.
Although the bill contains significant funding increases in emergency assistance and other programs, those were overshadowed in the days leading up to passage of the conference report by the debate over ending trade sanctions on Cuba.
While a number of farm-state congressmen had made sanctions reform a top priority this year, the House Republican leadership threw up obstacles to prevent the restoration of normal trade relations with Cuba.
Reps. Emerson, Berry and George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., spearheaded the efforts to lift the sanctions and allow cash sales of U.S. food and medicine to embargoed countries, including Cuba.
Although House leaders inserted language in the bill barring financing of sales to Cuba by U.S. lending institutions, pro-Cuba trade legislators were able to work out a compromise measure allowing financing by third country lenders. The bill does, however, contain restrictions on travel to Cuba to promote sales of U.S. food products.
A spokesman for the USA Rice Federation said that sales of U.S. rice to Cuba could be made as early as 120 days after the legislation is signed.