New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin Jr. has begun asking foreign governments for help in rebuilding his city. The volatile, ex-cable TV executive says the international community could “fill the gap” left by the federal government's recovery efforts.
If Nagin is successful, it may be time farm organizations begin asking foreign governments to help their members, given the lukewarm response of the Bush administration and some in Congress to disaster legislation for U.S. farmers.
Last November, Sens. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., introduced a bill — with Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran's support — that would have provided a direct payment to farmers who suffered economic loss from drought and high fuel prices in 2005.
The “Agriculture Assistance Act of 2005” also included funds for livestock farmers, fruit and vegetable growers and sugarcane farmers who were hammered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast.
A cold, wet spring followed by severe drought conditions, high fuel prices and Katrina cost Arkansas an estimated $905 million in net farm income in 2005. In Louisiana, where Katrina and Rita made an already economic difficult situation worse, farm losses totaled $1.59 billion.
The authors tried to insert their legislation in the fiscal year 2007 defense spending conference report just before Christmas. But Republican conferees — reportedly at the urging of the administration — refused to consider it.
The conference committee added $1.2 billion to the defense bill to help producers in the six coastal states — including Florida — with hurricane recovery efforts, but did nothing to assist producers in other areas devastated by drought and $3.50-per-gallon diesel fuel.
Even that was almost too little, too late, according to Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture Bob Odom, who noted that many of his state's growers — who would normally begin planting next month — don't know if they can farm or not.
Much of that funding will be distributed in a series of new programs that must go through USDA rulemaking, adding two or three months to the process.
Farmers in other regions, meanwhile, are waiting to see what, if any, help the federal government will render to help satisfy their bankers that they remain viable farming entities.
Jim Weismeyer, veteran Washington analyst who spoke at the Louisiana Rice Council and Rice Growers Association joint meeting in Crowley, believes Congress will write a disaster bill because it is, after all, a mid-term election year. But that aid likely won't come until 2007.
Shortly after Katrina struck the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coasts last August, Cuban President Fidel Castro offered to send 1,000 doctors and medical supplies to help treat flood victims in New Orleans. Some called it a publicity stunt, but those who've heard anything about the Cuban medical system believe he would have delivered.
It would be ironic if Castro or France and Jordan, the two countries Mayor Nagin reportedly has talked with, bailed out U.S. farmers at a time when their own government seems reluctant to help.