Obama administration Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has added to the list of counties classified as disaster areas due to the historically destructive summer drought. The majority of American counties are now deemed disaster areas, including 98 of 102 in Illinois, with the urban and suburban counties of Cook, DuPage, Kane and Will not getting the designation.
Gov. Pat Quinn pushed for the disaster designation. After all, it’s hard for government to immediately respond – neither Obama nor Quinn can make it rain – and the disaster tag indicates acknowledgement of a serious problem.
But despite the dramatic sounding name, the federal government will only provide limited assistance to some farmers hit hardest by the drought.
Farmers in disaster areas qualify for low-interest loan programs run by the U.S. Farm Services Agency, including programs that cover the lost revenue from not being able to grow and sell corn. The loans are the only direct policy that comes from a disaster designation.
According to Doug Yoder, senior director of Affiliate and Risk Management at the Illinois Farm Bureau, the federal government is a lender of last resort. “Only farmers who cannot find credit elsewhere will be given a loan,” Yoder says.
Farmers must show that they have shopped elsewhere for assistance. Also, some of the loans take a while to kick in. A Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program loan, for example, would not cover crops until 30 days after the application period. So coverage might not be very effective for the rest of the growing season. “We are running out of time,” Yoder says.
The Farm Services Agency is partly stymied by Congress.
The last farm bill that passed in 2007 contained a Supplemental Revenue Assistance program, or SURE, which provides up to $100,000 to individual farmers for crop loss or damage. SURE expired in 2011, and a bill that would reinstate some of its provisions to livestock farmers passed the House yesterday but will probably not be taken up in the Senate. Congress will now recess for five weeks, without having passed either a comprehensive five-year farm bill or emergency drought aid.
At the state level, Quinn has created an Illinois Drought Task Force that has drawn attention to Illinois Finance Authority loans for which some farmers may qualify. But Quinn’s main public proposal was to get Illinois counties declared federal disaster areas. The task force will meet in Springfield August 9 to provide state water supply and crop reports.