Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., says Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns' opposition to a new round of disaster assistance for U.S. farmers and ranchers means the country may need a new secretary of agriculture.
Conrad is the principal author of an amendment to the Senate-passed emergency supplemental appropriations bill that would provide $3.9 billion in disaster relief to farmers for weather-related losses in 2005.
President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, which also contains $92.5 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hurricane recovery, if it exceeds the $92.5 billion. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 78-20 but must be reconciled with the House version, which contains no funding for disaster aid.
Johanns has told reporters he believes the disaster assistance provisions in the bill are unnecessary because the administration is already providing $5 billion in hurricane-related disaster relief to farmers and net cash farm income for the nation as a whole is up from 2004.
“For the secretary of agriculture to say that only farmers in the Gulf states have been impacted by disaster is completely incompetent,” Conrad said in a statement issued after the Senate passed the supplement appropriations bill. “We need a new secretary of agriculture if that is what this one reports to the president.”
Conrad also wrote a scathing letter criticizing several statements made by Johanns in an interview with Inside Washington Today columnist Jim Wiesmeyer published April 21. The letter was signed by 18 of his colleagues, all Democrats.
“We have read with interest your comments concerning agricultural disaster assistance as reported by Jim Wiesmeyer,” Conrad's letter said. “We completely disagree with your analysis of the situation concerning the need for both production loss and energy-related disaster assistance for our farmers and ranchers due to the losses they sustained during 2005.
“We know of no farm families in this country who wish to have their crops destroyed or their production costs dramatically increased because they believe, as you suggest, the federal government will make them more than whole through assistance programs.”
Conrad's letter came as a House-Senate conference committee was preparing to take up the legislation, which contains a number of other measures that have drawn criticism from fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate.
Conrad said farmers in his state suffered major losses from floods and other weather-related problems even though North Dakota is a long way from the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. The supplemental bill would provide $175 million to North Dakota farmers and ranchers.
“You indicated that USDA has provided about $5 billion in hurricane-related disaster assistance through grants, loans, loan guarantees and food assistance for hurricane losses,” the letter said.
“As important as these programs are to economic recovery in the Gulf, they generally do not apply to the production losses sustained by producers in that region in 2005 and ignore the thousands of producers in other parts of the nation who also suffered significant losses due to weather-related causes.”
He also referred to comments by Johanns citing near-record national levels of production, cash receipts and net cash farm income in 2005 as a reason to oppose disaster assistance.
“We are well aware that some producers had the good fortune to produce above average crops in 2005. Unfortunately, not all farmers, and particularly those in areas most negatively affected by the hurricanes, floods, drought, wildfires and crop disasters, have shared equitably in those aggregate measures.”
Conrad pointed out that the Senate's crop disaster program targets production loss assistance to those who have suffered production losses in excess of 35 percent and not those who had production losses less than 35 percent, normal or above average production.
“You criticize removal of the 95 percent cap as a policy mistake. But you ignore the fact that previous programs with a cap also reduced disaster benefits by any crop insurance proceeds a producer might have received. These provisions unfairly penalized those who purchased higher levels of coverage,” the letter said.
“Our disaster legislation provides for a 50 percent payment rate on losses greater than 35 percent. We do not believe this program is going to come close to making farmers whole-. It will provide many operators the opportunity to continue to farm in 2006, providing economic stability to rural communities and financial help to farm families.”
In the Weismeyer interview, Johanns said the energy-related economic loss payments in the Senate bill only benefit program crop producers. “USDA has estimated that energy-related input costs in 2005 were about $5 billion over the 2004 level,” said Conrad. “A large majority of those additional expenses were born by program crop producers who are by far the largest users of fuel and fertilizer in the nation.”
Based on USDA data, increased costs for fuel and fertilizer in 2005 amounted to about $4.4 billion or nearly 90 percent of the total increase in energy-related input costs. Conrad noted that wheat, corn and soybean producers spent more than $2 billion of this amount and that those who produce the majority of program crops also represent a large percentage of the production of non-program crops and livestock.
“If the administration believes there is a need for energy payments to other agricultural sectors, perhaps it would be more constructive to sit down with us and discuss those alternatives, rather than issuing directives to Congress through the press,” he wrote.
Conrad is the second senator to go toe-to-toe with Johanns over statements about the lack of a need for disaster assistance.
Earlier, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., met with Johanns to express his concerns over comments indicating that emergency agricultural assistance was not warranted.
“He needed to understand the lay of the land in Montana — I just don't think he knows what we are dealing with,” said Burns, who reportedly is locked in a close race for re-election. “I made him aware of the situation on the ground, and I think he understands better now.”
Burns said Montana farmers are coming off seven years of drought. “To be hit with these input cost increases — well, for some folks it is just too much to take. The hurricanes drove these costs through the roof, and, as we provide relief to folks in the Gulf States, we can't ignore the needs of those in other states who are feeling the pinch of the hurricane's effects on fuel and fertilizer costs.”