With Arkansas farmers facing a largely disappointing cropping year and perhaps facing a wait of months before federal disaster assistance arrives, Delta Farm Press spoke with Jeffery Hall of the Arkansas Farm Bureau (AFB). Hall, the AFB associate director of governmental affairs, national, was interviewed on Nov. 6. Among his comments:

What’s the lay of the land on disaster programs out of D.C.? Anything in the works other than the SURE program? The latest on where potential disaster payments might come from?

“Our (AFB) officers — the president and vice-president — were in D.C. last week hosting a conference on health care. But they also went to the Hill to bring the delegation (up to speed) on the crop situation and what our folks are struggling with in getting crops out of the field.

“Our (question) to them was: is there any way to speed up USDA to get the SURE regulations out?

“We’re skeptical. Will the SURE program assist Southern agriculture the way the formula is structured? But before we say it will not, we at least need to see the rules and regulations and put those on real-life farms to see what the assistance is.

“If it’s not there, then — and we discussed this with our delegation — an ad hoc disaster may very well be needed.”

The reception from the delegation? Are they tipping their hand?

“Our delegation is extremely supportive of agriculture. … With the federal deficit, health care, climate change — those big issues in front of them — I think if we go towards an ad hoc disaster program, commodity organizations and Farm Bureaus will have to, in my opinion, find pay-fors for (the funds).”

Theoretically, would (the pay-fors) have to come out of the agriculture budget or can it be pulled from somewhere else?

“First of all, we wouldn’t have it come out of the commodity title of the farm bill. That’s a non-starter, whether to pay for disaster, food nutrition or anything else.

“We’d hope to find those monies elsewhere.”

On the SURE program being implemented…

“Our (Farm Bureau) officers also met with USDA last week. We visited with them about why the regulations aren’t out. Why hasn’t the (SURE) program already been implemented? When will it be?

“USDA officials, since OMB (Office of Budget and Management) has the information for the SURE program and it hasn’t been published yet, were unable to talk about the specifics of the program. We understand that.

“But the fact is, (this is) a revenue-based approach that’s being triggered by a 50 percent loss on your farm or a (USDA) secretarial declaration — and just yesterday 26 Arkansas counties were declared disaster areas. (Such a declaration) triggers SURE eligibility and (a farmer) doesn’t need a 50 percent loss. (He) can have up to a 10 percent loss.”

But farmers must also have crop insurance to be eligible for the SURE program. “I think that’s one thing that’ll get a number of (Arkansas farmers). The way we farm in the South, basically, crop insurance is irrigation wells.

“I think it’s a little too early to know exactly the benefits or non-benefits the SURE program will have in Arkansas.”

What about the climate change legislation that’s suddenly barreling through the Senate, headed towards the agriculture committee? What do you see on that?

“We are adamantly opposed to the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House. As that moved to the Senate side, the EPW (Environment and Public Works) Committee has passed (a bill) 11-1. I believe all the Republicans weren’t even in the room.

“You can see that this doesn’t have support from both sides.

“It would drastically increase input costs for our farmers. One question Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, continues to ask is what it will do to the price of food. No one is discussing that.

“We know it will increase energy for consumers, for homeowners, as well as increase input items for farmers. That’s diesel, propane, electricity — even chemicals and fertilizer — because transportation costs will be increased.

“We hear a lot about agricultural offsets. I believe Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow put in some offsets. But, at this time, I haven’t seen that list.

“In the House version (of the legislation), the offsets pick winners and losers. If you have timber only, you may come out okay. But if you have 1,000 acres of row crops and 40 acres in CRP with pine timber, those offsets won’t (equal) the increases you’d face on the 1,000 acres of row-crops.”

On the future of cap and trade legislation…

“Since it has passed (the Senate EPW) Committee, I think it’s about to run into some major, major struggles — especially since it must go through the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“We’ve worked closely with (Arkansas Senators) Lincoln and Mark Pryor. We’ve visited with them as part of a broad-based coalition in the state: rural electric, the Arkansas Agriculture Council, Riceland Foods, Tyson, and Farm Credit to voice our concerns with the legislation.

Are the region’s Farm Bureau offices making a concerted effort on these disaster payments? Will that be in the works in coming months?

“I think we will join our efforts together. All the state Farm Bureau (offices) have been waiting for the SURE regulations to come out. It’s a responsible approach to get the regulations out, see how they will benefit or won’t benefit Southern agriculture. Also, we need hard numbers on the harvest.”

That way “when we go to the Hill and ask for something, we can tell them how SURE (has affected the region) and can show them the effects of the wet weather and floods on harvest.”

Did USDA give you a timeframe for SURE regulations being out?

“Last week, we were told by USDA that sign-up will be in November for 2008 losses and payments made in December. In my opinion, I think that’s optimistic

“I suspect some at USDA expected the regulations to be out this week. That wasn’t said but, more or less, implied.”

Anything else?

“Sen. Lincoln’s concern is with the time delay with the SURE program, with getting assistance out. We’ve had that in the past with getting ad hoc disaster programs moved through. The SURE program was supposed to do away with the need for ad hoc (programs).

“But whatever kind of assistance programs that are out there — whether SURE or ad hoc — it needs to be much more timely assistance for our producers than in the past.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com