After considerable complaining by agriculture commissioners in Alabama and Louisiana about the federal government's delay in providing hurricane relief for farmers, USDA officials have finally announced plans to release $1.2 billion in aid.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Connors said in mid-January that the aid will go to Gulf Coast farmers and ranchers in counties that have been declared presidential disaster areas. While USDA did not give a timeline for when the funds will be available, Connors said USDA would proceed with a signup while administrative details are resolved.

USDA says signup information will be made available to farmers through their state and county Farm Service Agency offices. Eligibility criteria and payment limitations will apply to all disaster programs.

Alabama Agriculture & Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks and Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture & Forestry Bob Odom had stated earlier in January that they wondered how much suffering Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns expected farmers to take without any relief for Hurricane Katrina damages. Sparks' increased dissatisfaction with federal relief efforts was a result of hearing that Johanns had released another $200 million for relief efforts in Florida. As Alabamians were hit with over $600 million dollars in damages as a result of Katrina, many were still waiting for clean up checks from Hurricane Ivan, said Sparks.

Florida's most recent allocation for $200 million in relief funding will bring that state's total to more than $1 billion received by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the last 15 months. Sparks continues to ask Alabama's Congressional delegation to push for agricultural funds that are desperately needed. “We commend the U.S. Senate for its efforts to include funds for disaster victims in the defense appropriations bill, but the funds were taken out because of pressure from the House leadership and the White House. I understand that the people in Florida also need help, but Alabama farmers need help and have not received a dime,” he said.

In 2005, hurricanes caused extensive agricultural damage throughout the Gulf Coast region. Other states also have expressed disappointment in the federal government's lack of assistance. Louisiana Commissioner Bob Odom expressed outrage over the USDA's decision to award Florida agriculture producers $200 million in disaster assistance following the 2005 hurricane season.

“The single-most devastating series of natural disasters affected the entire Gulf Coast last fall, and the USDA singled out one state for assistance — I just don't get it,” Odom said. “How do you hand Florida $200 million and turn your back on Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas? It's a slap in the face to agriculture producers.”

Louisiana's combined agriculture losses from both hurricanes Katrina and Rita are expected to total more than $2 billion.

“I've met with Secretary Johanns three times since the hurricanes, and the most we've gotten is some assistance with clearing trees off pastureland. Our farmers need assistance and they need it now — before planting season gets here,” Odom said in early January.

Alabama's Sparks added, “I have sat and talked with farmers in south Alabama who had tears in their eyes because of the damage they had to their crops and property. They have tried to work through the proper channels to get help, but there are no funds coming in for them. When Secretary Johanns came to tour the destruction caused by Katrina, we couldn't even get him to come to south Alabama. The Secretary wanted these farmers to go up and meet with him hours away in Mississippi. We have even tried to have conference calls with the Secretary and he has been unavailable. The farmers in this area have suffered long enough. I am not going to stand by while they are ignored by Secretary Johanns. Times of disaster should not be just a photo opportunity for politicians. These farmers need help and they need it now.”

Since the announcement of the federal aid for Gulf Coast farmers, Alabama Farmers Federation President Jerry A. Newby has praised USDA for responding to the urgent calls from Alabama farmers, many of whom have not been able to rebuild or plan for the coming crop year because disaster assistance has not been available.

“We appreciate USDA for taking action to release these much-needed funds,” Newby said. “Many of Alabama's farmers have suffered two straight years of hurricane-related losses. While this money won't solve all their problems, these funds will help with the costs to clean up debris, allow them to begin to rebuild their farms and get on the road to recovery. This won't make the hardest hit farmers whole, but it's a start.”

The assistance package includes about $115 million for Hurricane Indemnity Payments to producers who had either crop insurance or participated in the Non-Insured Assistance Program. The Livestock Indemnity Program will help livestock and poultry producers who lost animals due to the storms. Payments for that program are projected to be about $15 million.

Another $50 million will go to assist fruit and nut producers under the Tree Assistance Program, and $25 million has been set aside for block grants to affected states to compensate aquaculture producers who experienced income losses.

The Emergency Conservation Program has been expanded to help nurseries, forest owners, poultry growers, and other farmers with debris cleanup. USDA expects to spend an additional $200 million for this cost-share program. Forest owners will be able to apply for assistance through a new Emergency Forestry Program (EFP).

The new program is part of the Conservation Reserve Program, which sets aside highly erodible land for conservation uses. Initial funding for the EFP is expected to be about $404 million.

Alabama's share of the Emergency Watershed Program is $23 million. That money will be used to help farmers and ranchers clean up debris that impairs waterways on private lands.

“We thank Deputy Secretary Connor for seeking producer input in making these funds available as soon as possible, and we urge USDA to begin signup almost immediately,” Newby said in mid-January.

e-mail: phollis@prismb2b.com