Can the U.S. Senate overcome strong opposition in the House and pass legislation to help farmers who suffered a variety of weather and economic disasters including the hurricane-spawned high-energy prices of 2005?

That's the question that was on the minds of a group of senators and farm organization leaders who held a rally on Capitol Hill to build support for the Emergency Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2006.

The latter, introduced by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., would provide emergency funding to farmers and ranchers who suffered weather-related crop production shortfalls, quality losses and damage to livestock feed supplies. It will also provide payments for the loss of livestock.

“This bill gives our farmers and ranchers a chance to stay in business by overcoming some of the losses due to events outside of their control,” said Conrad, who was joined by 23 senators who co-sponsored the legislation.

Among those are Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, Democrats from Arkansas; Christopher “Kit” Bond and Jim Talent, Republicans from Missouri; Mary Landrieu, Democrat from Louisiana; Mel Martinez, R-Fla.; Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Baucus and Dorgan appeared with Conrad at the rally on Capitol Hill March 28.

Although his state is many miles removed from the Gulf Coast region where a record number of named hurricanes struck in 2005, Conrad said North Dakota farmers still experienced their share and more of weather and other natural disasters.

“North Dakota's farmers and ranchers have suffered from a wave of losses — rain, frost, floods and even anthrax,” he said. “Every single county in North Dakota was designated a primary disaster county last year. Disastrous weather kept farmers from planting more than a million acres last year in North Dakota.

“This bill is a priority for our family farmers in rural America because our producers are in jeopardy.”

“This past year was one when several major natural disasters, including droughts, floods, fires, tornadoes and hurricanes ravaged thousands of acres of agricultural land and destroyed farmstead buildings and homes,” said American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman.

“The Emergency Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2006 will provide help to producers for losses incurred during the 2005 crop year. Without such help, many producers will be forced out of business.”

Farm Bureau was one of a number of organizations, including the National Farmers Union, U.S. Rice Producers Group and U.S. Rice Producers Associations, represented at the rally, which, ironically, was forced indoors by rain.

The USA Rice Federation, the umbrella organization for the U.S. Rice Producers Group and other industry segments, said the Conrad bill contains a supplemental direct payment provision that is key for rice producers who experienced significant natural disaster-related losses in 2005.

“The 30 percent supplemental direct payment provision in this bill would provide some relief to rice producers trying to recover from the hurricane, drought and flood-related losses of 2005,” said Paul Combs, chairman of the U.S. Rice Producers Group. “We appreciate the support of Sen. Conrad and our rice state senators on this legislation.”

Conrad noted that 22 farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association, National Cotton Council, the two rice producer organizations and the National Farmers Union, have written Congress to endorse disaster legislation.

“We are deeply concerned about the current economic condition of agriculture due to last year's natural disasters that resulted in substantial production losses and significant cost of production increases throughout the country,” the letter said.

“Virtually every state in the nation has been impacted and about 80 percent of U.S. counties declared disaster or contiguous disaster counties last year due to devastating hurricanes, fires, floods, excessive moisture and severe drought. Besides heavy crop and livestock losses and increased production costs, many areas also face contaminated fields and infrastructure losses that pose serious long-term challenges to economic recovery.”

The bill will also help farmers overcome losses as a result of energy prices that spiked following last year's hurricanes, said Conrad. Energy-related farm expenses rose by more than $5 billion last year compared to 2004.

“Unlike other industries,” he said, “Farmers and ranchers are largely unable to pass on these costs, meaning those higher energy costs directly reduce farm income.”

House members like Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., have introduced similar disaster assistance bills in recent months, but the legislation has run into strong opposition from the House leadership.

The latest Berry attempt — an amendment to a $92.2-billion, emergency-spending bill that would have provided $3.4 billion in disaster assistance to farmers and ranchers — was defeated in a 34-27 vote in the House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., was the only Republican voting for the amendment.

“Congress must not turn its back on those who produce America's food supply,” said Stallman in a statement released by Farm Bureau following the March 28 rally. “Although assistance has been granted for certain agricultural commodities in hurricane areas, other impacted commodities and other regions of the country have been left to battle their own disasters.

“Sen. Conrad's bill is a sensible approach to a national problem.”

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