The Senate Agriculture Committee has passed emergency assistance legislation that would provide a supplemental 2001 Agricultural Market Transition Act (AMTA) payment equal to that farmers received in 2000 and in 1999.

The legislation, the Emergency Agriculture Assistance Act of 2001, includes $5.47 billion for the additional AMTA payments for cotton, feed grain, rice and wheat growers at 1999 rates. An earlier bill passed by the House provides only $4.6 billion for additional AMTA payments for the 2001 fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

The Senate ag committee bill earmarks a total of $7.4 billion for farmer assistance, including funding for sustaining several conservation programs until a new farm bill can be written. It draws on money from the budget resolution for fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2002.

“The need for assistance to America's farmers and ranchers and the communities in which they live is critical,” said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Without this assistance tens of thousands of them are in danger of going out of business.

“This package is designed to do the best we can to address the many problems in agriculture across the nation, while staying within the limitations of the budget resolution.”

The bill provides loans and grants to encourage value-added products, especially those that are bio-energy-based, and compensation for damage to flooded lands. It also allows producers who did not sign AMTA contracts to participate in the marketing loan program for the 2001 crop year.

“I have heard from many members of the farm community about the importance of these market assistance payments, so we have worked hard to include the same level of funding for this program as was included last year,” said Harkin, who became committee chairman after the defection of Vermont's Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party in June.

“I would add that I have never been a strong supporter of the AMTA mechanism which is used for these payments. I believe there are real inequities in that formula, and I believe it should be changed in the farm bill,” said Harkin.

“However, in view of the short time for USDA to get the payments out and other factors, we have decided that the best available approach under the circumstances is to use the same market loss payment approach that has been used in recent years.”

The chairman, who appears to favor such programs over AMTA payments, said the bill provides about $500 million for conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The bill provides conservation support for:

  • CRP: $44 million, which allows for unrestricted enrollment in the continuous signup and requires the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to provide the same incentive payments for all continuous sign-up practices.
  • WRP: $200 million for technical assistance, monitoring and maintenance to protect wetlands. Without these funds WRP will be exhausted by the end of fiscal 2001 and wouldn't be funded for months.
  • EQIP: $250 million to provide cost-share and incentive payments to farmers and ranchers to adopt structural and management practices.

“It was critical that this bill include a substantial commitment to agricultural conservation. Several of the programs are out of money and this will put much-needed funding into these conservation programs,” said Harkin.

“In general, the demand exceeds the funding for these programs by a factor of about 5 or 6. By providing funding to support these programs in fiscal 2002 we can insure that these programs do not lie dormant for months.”

The Emergency Agriculture Assistance Act will use the $5.5 billion allocated in the budget agreement to support income assistance to farmers in fiscal 2001 and will use funds from fiscal 2002 to support other programs in the next fiscal year.

Farm organizations applauded the Senate Agriculture Committee vote.

“We commend Chairman Tom Harkin for his leadership in crafting this assistance package,” said Leland Swenson, president of the National Farmers Union. “We are pleased that members of the committee have chosen to provide funding that is comparable to what many farmers requested at the start of this process.

“This level of funding recognizes the needs that exist in rural America at a time when farmers face continued low commodity prices for row and specialty crops while input costs for fuel, fertilizer and energy have risen rapidly over the past year.”

Swenson said NFU is urging the full Senate to quickly pass the legislation. “It is vital that the House/Senate conference committee fund this measure at the Senate level. As we meet the challenge of crafting a new agriculture policy for the future, today's needs for assistance are still great. We hope for swift action to help America's farmers and ranchers.”