As serious drought conditions continue to creep across nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are fanning out to rural communities across the country to show support to farmers and ranchers affected by a string of extreme weather in 2012.
On Monday, Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse began a tour of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana—three states affected by severe frost and freezes in the spring, with Indiana now experiencing increasing levels of drought.
In the weeks ahead, additional USDA subcabinet leaders will travel to Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and others to augment ongoing assistance from state-level USDA staff. USDA officials will also provide guidance on the department's existing disaster resources and remind producers to keep thorough records of losses as the department's authority to operate the five disaster assistance programs authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30, 2011, and Congress has not yet acted to restore these vital forms of assistance.
"Our hearts go out to all of those affected by this year's disasters, from frost and freezes to fires and drought," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Without a robust package of disaster assistance programs available to struggling farmers and ranchers, it is important that USDA officials visit rural communities and talk with producers not only about their current options but also about the need for proper planning through these difficult times. And we remind Congress that as agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation's economy, it is crucial that producers have a safety net in times of need, and that USDA has the tools to act quickly and deliver assistance when producers need it most."
USDA agencies have been working for weeks with state and local officials, as well as individuals, businesses, farmers and ranchers, as they begin the process of helping to get people back on their feet. USDA offers a variety of resources for states and individuals affected by the recent disasters. Individuals can also apply for other types of federal disaster assistance at www.disasterassistance.gov.
Agencies working to help those in disaster areas include the USDA Rural Development program, the USDA Farm Service Agency, the USDA Risk Management Agency, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
In rural communities, USDA's Rural Development works with existing individual and community borrowers that have been affected by a natural disaster to help them with their loans. With respect to loans guaranteed by Rural Development, borrowers should initially contact their lender for assistance.
USDA's Farm Service Agency provides emergency loans through the Emergency Loan Program to help producers recover from production and physical losses due to natural disasters. Producers will be eligible for these loans as soon as their county is declared a Presidential or Secretarial disaster county. Last week, Vilsack announced three significant improvements to USDA programs and processes related to Secretarial disaster designations: a final rule that simplifies the process for Secretarial disaster designations and will result in a 40% reduction in processing time for most counties affected by disasters; a reduced interest rate for emergency loans that effectively lowers the current rate from 3.75% to 2.25%; and a payment reduction on Conservation Reserve Program lands qualified for emergency haying and grazing in 2012, from 25 to 10%.
Hot, dry and drought conditions across states from California to Delaware have damaged some crops and slowed development of others. USDA's Risk Management Agency reminds producers faced with questions on crop losses to contact their crop insurance companies and local USDA Farm Service Agency Service Centers, as applicable, to report damages to crops or livestock loss, and not to destroy or discontinue care for your crops. Farmers and ranchers who participate in the federal crop insurance program are reminded to please contact your agent or company as soon as you experience any failing crops. USDA assures producers that indemnity payments will be made to producers who submit claims for crops and livestock. In addition, USDA reminds livestock producers to keep thorough records of losses, including additional expenses for such things as food purchased due to lost supplies.
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service administers the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which provides assistance to areas that have been damaged by natural disasters, such as floods, windstorms, drought, and wildfires. In partnership and through local government sponsors, NRCS helps local communities recover from natural disasters.
The USDA Food and Nutrition Service provides food assistance to those in need in areas affected by a disaster. This Federal assistance is in addition to that provided by State and local governments. USDA provides disaster food assistance in three ways: provides foods to State agencies for distribution to shelters and other mass feeding sites; provides food to State agencies for distribution directly to households in need in certain limited situations; and authorizes State agencies to issue Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.