Editor's Notebook

Aug. 30 – The text hardly had time to scroll across the screen Tuesday before farm organizations and legislators began responding to the Bush Administration’s latest inadequate response to a disaster that has cost America’s farmers millions of dollars the past two years.

They simply don’t get it.

True, cotton farmers made bumper crops the past two seasons. They’ll not come close to those lofty yields in 2006 and while gins were pushing out bales at a record pace last fall, grain farmers and livestock producers were pushing equally hard to survive after a devastating summer. Corn and milo yields across much of the Southwest fell far below average. Pastures had withered under relentless heat and drought. Small grain planting conditions last fall prevented seeding much of anticipated acreage and a good portion of what was planted either never came up, came up too late to vernalize or simply emerged and died.

Ranchers have gone through more than 18 months trying to salvage as much of their herds as possible with meager water and feed supplies. Sale barns are busy; cattle prices will fall.

This disaster, this drought, rivals those of the 1950s, according to farmers we’ve talked to who survived them.

Rural economies are hemorrhaging. Farmers need a transfusion not a band aid.

And a band aid, not a particularly big one either, is what Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns offered Tuesday.

The National Association of Wheat Growers response hit my computer first.

“We … are very disappointed with the details of the Secretary’s announcement,” said Dale Schuler, NAWG president and a wheat farmer from Carter, Mont.

“Wheat growers across the country are facing the worst droughts in decades. A much broader, more comprehensive package is needed - now.”

Wheat growers also expressed disappointment in the way payments would be made-- from the counter cyclical program, which does not help wheat producers since it’s based on a target price and shortages caused by drought and other disasters push prices above the counter cyclical trigger.

Collin Peterson, Ranking Democratic Member, House Committee on Agriculture, said the effort was appreciated but inadequate.

“The disaster assistance funds will bring relief to some farmers and ranchers, but it does not mitigate the need for Congress and the Administration to work together to provide comprehensive crop and livestock disaster assistance for 2005 and 2006,” Peterson said.

“The assistance measures announced today are a small step in the right direction.”

He plans to pursue comprehensive agriculture disaster assistance after the congressional recess for “other American farmers who continue to struggle without relief.”

National Farmers Union president Tom Buis said, “the response is not strong enough.

USDA's release of $780 million is not commensurate with the staggering amount and severity of disaster we've seen across the country. More than 80 percent of counties nationwide were declared federal disaster areas in 2005. This year we've already seen more than 50 percent of counties declared disaster areas, as drought conditions continue to get worse.”

Criticism is bi-partisan. Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas said the relief effort “falls about $3 billion short of what is needed.”

Lucas said a drought assistance package he sponsors goes farther and “will provide more than four times the assistance that this USDA plan will provide, with an estimated $3.3 billion in drought and disaster assistance for producers.

“Most distressing about the USDA plan is that the bulk of the funding will come from counter-cyclical payments, which aren't available to wheat producers, who have the largest dollar losses in our state. Wheat producers won't see a dollar of this assistance, and that is unacceptable.”

Unacceptable, indeed.

Secretary Johanns and others in the administration would do well to pay closer attention to the plight of the country’s most important industry.

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