WASHINGTON The U.S. Agriculture Secretary says he is concerned that legal hurdles prevented much immediate federal help for Midwestern farmers faced with serious setbacks because of flooding.
"I think everybody is frustrated because there's never enough you can do," Ed Schafer told The Associated Press on Thursday after meeting with Illinois lawmakers. "We have the legal restraints and statutory restraints and actuarial restraints that just don't allow you to do everything that you want to do, and that's hard because people are hurting."
One of the difficulties, Schafer said, is the widely held belief that a new provision governing disasters in the 2008 Farm Bill provides money to farmers and ranchers who have incurred heavy crop and livestock losses.
"The problem is that the payments won't come for that until October of 2009, because it's based on an average annual price that has to be measured a year from this harvest season," he said.
The Midwest provides the bulk of the nation's corn and soybeans, key crops used across a range of foods, as well as the livestock industry's favored feeds. Iowa and Illinois, the country's No. 1 and No. 2 corn producers, last year accounted for just over a third of the country's 13.07 billion-bushel corn crop.
The Farm Bureau has pegged Iowa's agricultural losses alone at roughly $3 billion, while Indiana agricultural officials estimate the state's losses at $800 million. Experts say it's too soon to even estimate the losses in Illinois and Missouri.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, praised Department of Agriculture officials for their work in the flooding's aftermath, saying they were doing everything they could to help the state in the face of legal restrictions that limit aid.
One unanswered question is whether the government can make Conservation Reserve Program acreage, now set aside for preservation, available for earlier haying and livestock grazing to those affected by the floods. The Agriculture Department may modify rules for the program to allow such activities even earlier than usual when there has been flooding.
The Agriculture Department is also looking into whether it can be flexible with planting deadlines in the crop insurance law. They now act as disincentives for planting or replanting crops later in planting season.
"At this point in time, late June, it becomes extremely difficult in our part of the country to plant something other than perhaps milo or sorghum and to expect any crop to come in time," Durbin said.
Current late-planting penalties for soybeans establish when farmers must plant a crop and what they should receive as payments when their crop is ruined. Farmers who plant after June 15 are supposed to see a reduction in their crop insurance coverage.
Another complication is that farmers who get paid because the floods have prevented planting must not replant a crop before July 1.
Federal and state agriculture officials say the real damage from the flooding that started in early June won't be known until after the fall harvest. A report due Monday from the Department of Agriculture should give the country its first glimpse of the damage to the corn and soybean crops.