The economic stimulus legislation that was stalled in the Senate before Thanksgiving could offer Delta farmers their best chance for federal disaster assistance in the wake of the early September monsoon rains that struck the region.
The Senate version of the bill, H.R. 3090, would provide $1.8 billion for emergency financial assistance to producers who suffered losses in their 2001 crops and $500 million for livestock producers with losses in counties designated as disaster areas. Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, wrote the language. It also instructs the agriculture secretary to spend $220 million to purchase agricultural commodities that have experienced low prices during the 2001 crop year for the school lunch program to help restore some measure of profitability.
The bill was expected to come up for a vote before the Senate recessed for Thanksgiving Nov. 16, but ran into a roadblock. The Senate failed to waive a Republican point of order on the Baucus bill by a vote of 51-47.
While press reports say the Senate version of the bill would direct much of its funding toward aiding the unemployed and low-income workers, Republicans and the Bush administration support the House bill's emphasis on tax cuts for corporations and individuals.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi downplayed the agricultural portion of the bill in appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows on Nov. 18, saying he was not in favor of “the government buying commodities to help cherry producers.” (Cherries are among the commodities that would be purchased under the bill.)
“I've talked to several farmers in this area who don't understand why he would take a position opposing this bill,” said a producer from the Hollandale, Miss., area who contacted Delta Farm Press. “Surely, he is aware of the damage farmers in this area have suffered because of the September rains.”
Many farmers in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi have said they were on the verge of harvesting some of their best crops ever when rains began to fall across the area in mid-August. The rains continued through the Labor Day weekend when as much as 11 inches fell in 24 hours in some areas.
“This was the highest rainfall recorded at the Delta Research and Extension Center at Stoneville (Miss.) for that time of year in 50 years,” said the producer. “People have said that we got a hurricane without the wind.”
Because the moisture and August temperatures set up “greenhouse-like” conditions, cotton, rice and grain sorghum seed began to germinate in the boll or seed head. Many Group IV soybeans were disked under because of disease pathogens that attacked the pods.
“Some of the grain elevators sent letters to their customers that they would not take any soybeans that were over 16 percent moisture,” said the farmer. “Those beans had nowhere to go and were a total loss to the grower.”
Besides the loss in seed quality, much of the cotton that was harvested suffered sharp reductions in yield, staple length and grade. Adding to their woes, a part of the region was drenched with heavy rains that flooded gin yards and caused further harvest delays in early October. Many grain sorghum fields were never harvested.
Mid-South farmers weren't the only ones who suffered from a natural disaster.
Speaking in the Senate on Nov. 13, Sen. Baucus said that farmers in the South and northern-tier states had been “particularly hard hit” by bad weather and bad economic conditions.
“Although some sectors and some regions have begun to recover, farmers' overall earnings (absent government payments) are down sharply,” he noted.
Despite the severity of the losses and their impact on rural communities, Baucus noted, some members of the Senate have attacked the agricultural provisions of the legislation.
“They've poked fun at it, circulating pictures of various fruits and vegetables,” he noted.
“Farmers and ranchers across the country may not find this all so amusing. They may wonder why the economic problems of ailing corporations demand immediate action, but the economic problems of farmers and ranchers deserve only derision.”
The attacks also prompted a heated letter to the editor of the Washington Post by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who was accused in a Post editorial of being influenced by lobbyists for the bison industry. Conrad denied the charge and added:
“Nobody has to tell me that the farm economy in my part of the country is flat on its back,” he wrote. “Farm prices are at record lows. Just last month, commodity prices dropped 9.5 percent — the biggest one-month drop we've seen since record-keeping began 90 years ago.”
Members of the Senate Finance Committee staff said they expect negotiations would continue through the Thanksgiving holidays to try to arrive at a compromise that would be acceptable to senators on both sides of the aisle.
Farmers, meanwhile, are being encouraged to contact their senators to ask them to support the disaster assistance portions of the legislation.
“Without some form of assistance, farmers in this area will not be able to pay their bills, landlords won't get their rent and there will be a ripple effect throughout the rural economy,” said a Mississippi farmer.
“We're already seeing some farmers selling their land and equipment, but that number is likely to grow if lenders don't have some form of assurance that farmers will be able to keep their operations intact through the winter.”