Legislation introduced this week in the U.S. Congress would provide emergency relief to American farmers in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast and in other parts of the country that are also suffering from extremes of weather.
Speaking to reporters on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building, North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad explained why he's introducing the Emergency Agriculture Disaster Assistance Act of 2005: "This is a national crisis that requires a national response."
Senator Conrad says the bill addresses the enormous agricultural losses caused by Hurricane Katrina, and damage from both floods and severe drought in other key farming areas around the country. He noted that in his own state of North Dakota 400 thousand hectares were prevented from planting due to floods this year, while other Midwestern and Plains States have suffered serious drought.
The Senate bill would compensate farmers for crop losses, help offset rising energy costs, and give grants to state governments to provide additional aid to growers.
North Dakota Congressman Earl Pomeroy has introduced similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. He says the outlook for farmers in his state is grim unless the law is quickly adopted.
"Without it we will see net farm income drop one third to one half in North Dakota," he says. "That is the margin between staying in business and leaving the farm for any number of family farmers. We have to pass this response and look forward to moving this bicameral legislation."
That statement brought applause from a group of farmers from all across the United States, who came to Washington to discuss farm policy with their elected officials. Among them, North Dakota farmers Bob and DeAnne Finken.
"This year we did have some acreage that we were not able to plant because of the overly wet conditions that hit us at the end of our planting season," says Bob. "It definitely has impacted the income and how things are and not just on our farm," says his wife, DeAnne. "There are farmers in the area and each year you see another one dwindle away and it just affects the population. The schools are losing students. The churches are closing and it just affects everyone in rural America."
Walter Hardie, who farms wheat, corn and beans in North Dakota says rainfall this summer amounted to 30 centimeters more than normal. "Right now our fall work is on hold because we can't get into the fields. There is water standing in the field," he says."
The farmers hope the proposed relief bill gets a fair hearing in Congress. Producer Bob Finken, whose farm business has suffered weather-related losses four years in a row, worries that the dire needs of Katrina victims might overshadow the plight of farmers elsewhere who are suffering from less dramatic but still disastrous extremes of weather. "Just like in droughts in the Midwest," he says. "Some of them went on for 4,5,6,7,8, years. They didn't have a name like they put on a hurricane. So, in some ways it is hard to compare disasters. Is one worse just because it's named?"
Named or not, weather disasters last year prompted Congress to appropriate $3 billion in emergency disaster relief for American farmers. That figure is expected to rise dramatically in the wake of Katrina. A full assessment of that hurricane's impact on the U.S. agriculture industry is not expected for weeks.