More than 10 months after Hurricane Katrina visited death and destruction on the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts, USDA says it will begin allocating $11.8 million in Emergency Conservation Program funds to help rehabilitate land damaged by natural disasters.
While the ACP funding is only one of several programs USDA is using to provide assistance to the 18 states affected by Katrina and other natural disasters, critics are saying once again the money is too little, too late.
“Excessive rainfall, flooding, drought and other severe weather conditions have taken a toll on our farm and ranchlands,” said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner, who announced the release of the funding. “These ECP funds will help assist farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate and restore conservation practices on their land.”
ECP gives producers additional resources to remove debris from farmland, restore fences and conservation structures, provide water for livestock in drought situations and grade and shape farmland damaged by a natural disaster.
Under the program, which is administered by USDA Farm Service Agency state and county committees, eligible producers will receive cost-share assistance of up to 75 percent of the cost of the approved practice.
Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Bob Odom has been especially vocal in his criticism of USDA’s handling of disaster for Louisiana and other states affected by disasters in 2005.
He recently introduced a unanimously passed resolution at the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture urging USDA to make Section 32 funds available immediately following a natural disaster.
“If we had funds earmarked in Section 32 that could be dispersed immediately following a disaster then some of our farmers could actually stay in business,” Odom said. “Our farmers are just starting to get federal disaster assistance money almost 10 months after the storms. It's too late for some of our ag producers.
“The creation and writing and all the red tape associated with the rules and regulations to disperse funds is crazy. We've had disaster after disaster and the process never speeds up. The funds can be dispersed via Section 32 without rules and regs, yet the administration has taken this long to get funds in the hands of farmers.”
The 18 states will receive the following in ECP funds:
New Hampshire $48,000
New Mexico $1,092,000
South Dakota $1,963,000
Odom said he is disgusted with the bureaucracy involved in getting assistance to farmers because Louisiana producers began planting three months ago and didn’t know when they would receive any help.
“Some had to make the tough decision not to return to the fields and that hurts us all. We need our food and fiber produced domestically in order for us to remain a world power. We do not need to depend on foreign countries to feed us and that is what is going to happen if farmers don’t receive prompt assistance following a disaster,” Odom said.
Section 32 funds were established in 1935 to aid farmers following the Great Depression. Historically, the funds have been used to help farmers move their commodities through markets and to reestablish farmers’ purchasing power. How those goals are accomplished is up to the USDA Secretary. In recent years the Secretary has used portions of Section 32 funds in the wake of natural disasters. For example, in 2005 more than $400 million was distributed in direct payments to Florida producers following a series of hurricanes.
Conner said eligible producers should check with their local FSA offices regarding ECP sign-up periods, which are established by county FSA committees.
For a producer’s land to be eligible, the disaster must create new conservation problems that, if untreated, would impair or endanger the land, materially affect its productive capacity, represent damage that is unusual in character, and be so costly to rehabilitate that federal assistance is required to return the land to productive agricultural use. Conservation problems existing prior to the applicable disaster are ineligible for ECP assistance.
USDA offers additional programs to help farmers and ranchers recover from damages caused by natural disasters, according to Conner. These programs include the Emergency Loan Program, Federal Crop Insurance and the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program.
More information on ECP and other disaster assistance programs is available at local FSA offices and online at: http://disaster.fsa.usda.gov.