On Wednesday (March 10), the Senate passed the “American Workers, State, and Business Relief Act of 2010.” Besides providing $1.5 billion in disaster funds for agriculture, the bill would reinstate vital tax credits for the biodiesel industry that expired last December. The bill must still be reconciled with similar House legislation.

“This past week we’ve had a lot of discussions with people from other regions of the country asking why the South needs a disaster program on top of the ones we have under permanent legislation,” said Richard Bell, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture, during a conference call set up by Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln. “The answer is rather simple: Because we’re different. The legislation that’s just passed will fill the gaps in the 2008 farm bill.”

How quickly might farmers receive those funds?

“We want to make sure (the bill passes) as quickly as possible,” said Lincoln. “We’ve made known to the House how important that is. There are a lot of members there who understand people have been waiting on this. Most of the tax extenders expired last December, some last June. So there’s an (urgency) to it.

“I can’t predict when the House will send it back to us. My hope is it will be next week (the week of March 15).”

Speaking on the biodiesel tax initiatives, Lincoln said “there’s no doubt that in order to grow jobs and the economy there must be predictability in the tax code. These are new industries finding their footing … and they’ve got to be able to go to capital markets for the resources they need. They can’t do that without more predictability in the economy and tax code.”

The bill also includes an extension of the new markets tax credit “which provides capital to spur economic development in low-income areas,” said Lincoln. The credit “does a tremendous job in leveraging dollars — private dollars with public dollars. The partnerships are amazing in terms of the resources we see pumping into our communities through the initiative.”

Also included in the bill: A one-year extension of the tax credit that provides short-line and regional railroads. “This is a 50 percent tax credit for expenditures for maintaining railroad tracks they own or lease,” said Lincoln. “Our short-line rail lines in Arkansas are absolutely essential.”

Another provision in the legislation is aimed to ensure that those who sell timber “are taxed at the capital gains rate, which is lower than the current rate for some.”

The bipartisan legislation was passed in just three months. Usually, “agriculture disaster (legislation) takes anywhere from three to four years to pass,” said Lincoln. “I knew our farmers didn’t have that kind of time. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so busy (on Capitol Hill) working with colleagues and pestering just about any member of the Senate I could to ensure this (passed) and get it moved to the House. I’ll now continue that 24/7 attitude to make sure members of the House understand how important it is.”

The legislation “is very much needed,” said Mike Booker, a Monroe County, Ark., farmer. Following last year’s very wet, trying early season with late-planted and re-planted crops, “we managed to put a nice crop together. Then, towards the fall, we had extreme amounts of rain again – so much that it flooded all the river bottoms. Every creek in Monroe County swelled and took hundreds of acres. Each of my neighbors lost 20 to 25 percent of their soybeans. Those closer to the rivers lost 50 to 75 percent of their soybeans.”

Farmers, said Booker, are “struggling to put things together, to get a crop loan, to get back in the field and try again. Some aren’t going to make it. It’s a really bad time and this (legislation) is really needed.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com