Sen. Lincoln holds out for more disaster aid than in USDA's latest offer to southern farmers

By Stewart Doan

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Little Rock, AR, Sept. 10 – Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) Friday balked at an Agriculture Department compensation offer for weather-related crop losses in 2009 after southern farm interests complained too few growers would receive assistance.

Following up on an Obama administration promise to Lincoln in late July that ag disaster funding would come from their budget, senior USDA officials handed her a proposal earlier this week that bore little resemblance to the $1.5 billion bill she tried to get through Congress.

Lincoln, considered the most vulnerable Democratic senator running for re-election this year, signaled her dissatisfaction with the plan during a debate with GOP nominee Rep. John Boozman in Little Rock. “I think it’s worth fighting for [and] I’ll continue to. The reason the negotiations are ongoing is because I want to get the best deal I possibly can for Arkansas farmers.”

Spokesmen for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Sources with knowledge of the matter told Agri-Pulse that USDA proposed to send approximately $550 million to farmers only in counties that received a disaster designation last year because of excessive moisture or flooding. The payments would cover yield losses for cotton and rice but not corn or soybeans, which have become a much bigger part of the southern U.S. acreage mix in recent years.

Ag groups representing the region’s farmers quickly expressed their concerns to Lincoln aides as USDA’s terms filtered out to the countryside. Rice producers predicted no reimbursement for higher production costs while Texas cotton growers pointed out their losses were due to drought conditions.

In its current form, the disaster package is also said to contain $60 million for contract poultry farmers affected by processing plant closures and a smaller amount for aquaculture growers.

Believing that Lincoln would sign off on the payment plan, higher-ups at USDA’s Farm Service Agency provided details to FSA state directors late Wednesday. But she phoned Vilsack the next day to tell him USDA needed to do more.

“We want losses for all crops included,” said a source close to Lincoln.

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