The Department of Agriculture is making available just under $2 billion for producers affected by hurricanes and wildfires in 2017 in a new program officially launching today.

The funds are available through the 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program authorized by Congress earlier this year. It covers eligible crops, trees, bushes, or vines located in a county that received a presidential or secretarial disaster designation in the 2017 hurricane season. Wildfire claims, which in many cases didn’t receive similar disaster designations, will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

In a statement, Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue said the department wants to get the funds disbursed to affected producers rapidly.

“Our objective is to get relief funds into the hands of eligible producers as quickly as possible,” Perdue said. “We are making immediate, initial payments of up to 50 percent of the calculated assistance so producers can pay their bills.”

Bill Northey, USDA’s undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse that 50 percent allocation will be for the individual producer, not the total dollars – about $2.36 billion – allocated for the program.

“As they sign up, they will receive an initial payment of 50 percent of what they are signing up for, and then at the end of program, we’ll see if there are dollars still available to give out the full remaining 50 percent of that payment or not,” Northey said.

“We think that there’s plenty of dollars here that will be available for most producers,” he added, “but until we know how many folks sign up and what the total losses are, we can’t know, and we certainly can’t spend more than what Congress allotted for this program.”

The disaster funding comes as part of allocation included in the Bipartisan Budget Act passed in February. Additional funds have also been used to adjust Livestock Indemnity Program payment limits and address the Emergency Conservation Program.

Signup for the program begins today and concludes Nov. 16. Producers are capped at a $125,000 payment limit, but if an applicant derived 75 percent of their income in 2013-2015, that limit jumps to $900,000. Northey said local USDA offices will be increasing staff on a temporary basis in some of the areas hardest hit.

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