12/23/07 — Farmers could get federal aid for drought, freeze losses

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Farmers could get federal aid for drought, freeze losses

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 23, 2007 2:01 AM

With Wayne County farmers experiencing about $35 million in lost potential profits due to the drought and Easter freeze this year, the news that Congress is likely to approve a $600 million drought relief measure before Christmas is extremely welcome.

"The best news is that we've got a bill. Last week, we didn't have anything. Hopefully by Christmas, it'll be passed and we'll have a law. And then we'll actually have something and the future gets a little brighter," said Rick Tharrington, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency in Wayne County. "Certainly this is something the farmers need and have been waiting for."

The money, which will be divided between those states hit hardest by this summer's drought -- mostly those in the Southeast -- will take the form of direct aid, which, said Ken Willis, spokesman for U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, is basically a grant program.

"We're thrilled about the prospect of farmers having some help from the drought that affected us this year," said Lee Lilly, a legislative assistant for Butterfield, focusing on agricultural affairs. "It's been like nothing we've ever seen before, and we hope this is a first step toward helping farmers recover from that."

And, added Tharrington, the fact that the money will come more or less in the form of grants, will be a boon for farmers who were expecting a good crop this year to help them get out from under previous debts.

Also adding to the good news is the USDA's pledge to pay out enough money to cover all the claims that qualify, even if that goes over the $600 million appropriated by Congress.

There is no timetable, however, for when those funds may actually be available to farmers.

A disaster relief package covering from 2005 until Feb. 28 was approved in April, but sign-ups didn't start until Oct. 15 and payments didn't start until Wednesday.

Similarly, Tharrington explained, it will likely be sometime in the second quarter of 2008 before these payments begin -- possibly sometime between March and July.

First, though, once it's approved by Congress and signed by President George Bush, the USDA will have to write the rules regarding who qualifies and how the funds will be distributed.

"Based on what I have seen, I'm certainly hoping that within six months we could see the payments being implemented. But that's just based on a history of seeing these programs come out in the past," Tharrington said.

In the meantime, county farmers are waiting anxiously as they begin preparing for next year's crops.

"It's very much needed," said Harold Overman who farms in and around the Grantham community. "Everyone is hoping it will come through. Federal crop insurance does not nearly cover all the losses. It only covers 65 percent of your loss, and in many cases, not even that much.

"(Waiting on the relief) makes it hard to make decisions. You just have to wait and try to hold on."