WASHINGTON — Congress moved quickly Wednesday to offer additional relief to drought-stricken Southeastern farmers, who say they need more than volunteer shipments of hay to stay in business.
The House Agriculture Committee approved legislation that would offer surplus government-owned grain and other disaster benefits to farmers in the region.
"This is everything we can do short of making it rain, which only the good Lord can do," committee Chairman E. (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.) said. The measure, which the panel approved by voice vote only hours after it was introduced, is expected to be whisked through the House next week.
Meanwhile, the Senate neared a vote on related legislation that would make available to farmers at least 75% of the government benefits they would have received if their crops had not been damaged by drought. Sen. Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) sought to attach the measure to a "must" bill raising the federal debt ceiling.
The House legislation would require that the Agriculture Department donate surplus feed grains or commodity certificates that could be sold or exchanged for hay to farmers in counties where livestock and poultry feed is in critical shortage.
"This would cover situations where livestock or poultry is in immediate danger of dying," committee aide Bernard Brenner said.
In less critical situations, the department would be required to use current authority to offer half-price emergency feed to farmers. Also, producers would be allowed to make use of hay growing on acres that they had agreed to idle under crop price-support programs.
Other provisions would pay up to 80% of transportation costs for moving hay from surplus areas to places where it is needed and would allow distressed dairy farmers to delay the assessments they otherwise would have to pay under the milk price-support programs.
An amendment by Rep. Denny Smith (R-Ore.) would extend the disaster benefits to any area outside the Southeast that had been hit not only by drought but also by flood damage.
U.S. Owns Grain
De la Garza said the proposal would have little impact on the budget because the government already owns the surplus feed grains that would be donated or offered at half price.
He said that moving the grain to Southeastern farmers also could relieve another problem, that of tight storage space in Midwestern grain elevators.
Robert Denman, an official with the National Farmers Union, said the voluntary hay shipments that are pouring into the Southeast from all over the nation would not meet long-term needs of drought relief.
"This crisis will be going on until at least next spring," he said. "There is no way most of these farmers will be able to make a hay crop this year. This spurt of volunteer hay shipments is nice, but there will be a monumental task of moving hay and grain into the area for quite some time. Just one dairy cow consumes about two tons of hay a year."