The House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday advanced an $8.5 billion disaster bill that would cover a wide range of producers’ losses in 2020 and 2021, with somewhat more generous provisions than recent relief programs.

The covered losses under the nine-page bill, which was approved on a voice vote, would include damage from the ongoing Western drought; the 2020 derecho in Iowa; the polar vortex that struck Texas in February, and wildfires that tainted California wine grapes with smoke. Losses caused by power outages, such as those that forced Texas milk producers to dump milk, also would be eligible for payments.

"It seems like no producer has been spared the wrath of Mother Nature this year. That's why it's important that we build some momentum for relief," said the committee's top Republican, Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson of Pennsylvania. 

The bill is intended to be folded into a supplemental appropriations bill, although a year-end spending measure also is a possibility.

The measure incorporates provisions of the temporary Wildfire and Hurricane and Indemnity Program (WHIP), which was enacted in the wake of the 2017 natural disasters and then expanded as WHIP+ in 2018 and 2019.

The legislation would make it easier for farmers to qualify for drought losses. Under previous programs, the drought in a farmers’ area had to be classified as D3 (extreme) or D4 (exceptional). Under the bill, a county with a USDA disaster designation due to D2 (severe) drought for eight consecutive weeks could qualify for assistance.

Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., welcomed that change, saying that 72% of her state was in severe drought this summer.

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“Just last week I was speaking with a rancher in my district, who's been forced to sell half her herd due to conditions caused by the drought,” Craig said. “Action is needed to support producers like her in my district, and across the country.”

Payments under the bill would be limited to $250,000 per person, except for producers of high-value specialty crops. They would be allowed to collect up to $900,000, a limit that was carried over form the 2017 WHIP program.

The bill also would allow direct payments to sugar and dairy cooperatives for losses, including milk dumping, that affect an entire co-op.

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