Recognizing that recovery from the drought that affected much of the farm belt will be a lengthy process, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the scheduling of four regional meetings which will outline available resources to assist with local, regional and state recovery efforts. USDA will coordinate with State and local partners, working closely with the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to facilitate these meetings.
"The impact of drought can be felt in rural communities throughout the country and the Obama Administration is committed to doing everything it can to help farmers, ranchers, businesses, and local and county governments meet drought-related challenges," said Vilsack. "President Obama has instructed federal agencies to assist drought impacted regions, and these meetings will provide an opportunity for federal representatives to work cooperatively with local and regional leaders to learn about drought related impacts and determine how to best use existing programs to help speed recovery efforts."
The meetings will be coordinated through area partners, such as universities or business groups and state agencies, and will be invitational and regional in scope. Specific details will be announced later, but the meetings will be kicked off in Omaha, Nebraska, on October 9, with meetings to follow in Ohio, Colorado and Arkansas. The meetings will assess current and emerging drought recovery issues. USDA, in partnership with other federal agencies, will work with local government, community, and business leaders, regional planning organizations, and economic and state development and agriculture organizations to explore issues ranging from infrastructure challenges to development and financing needs, attempting to look at the total recovery picture for the region. This team approach has been employed elsewhere and has proved to be an effective way to further local and regional recovery planning efforts by kick-starting a collaborative process among participants from the local community as well as subject matter experts.
The Secretary also announced the implementation of the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF). The framework links local, State, Tribal and Federal governments, the private sector and nongovernmental and community organizations that play vital roles in recovery. It is a scalable, adaptable coordinating structure that helps align key roles and responsibilities in response to disaster recovery. The full text of the framework can be found at http://www.fema.gov/recoveryframework.
USDA has designated all or parts of 39 states as natural disaster areas this year. The Administration has announced a number of policy changes and introduced greater flexibility in programs aimed at helping address the impact of drought, including additional help for livestock producers, small business lending assistance, and trucking waivers to provide relief. SBA, for example, has followed USDA's disaster designations and has issued agency declarations covering more than 1,630 counties, providing a pathway for small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and non-farm small businesses that are economically affected by the drought in their community to apply for SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).
USDA has opened, with certain conditions, conservation lands to emergency haying and grazing, lowered the interest rate for emergency loans and worked with crop insurance firms to provide flexibility to farmers. Additionally, the Interior Department has provided grazing flexibility and the Small Business Administration is working to help with access to capital and credit.
The SBA has issued 128 agency drought declarations in 38 states covering 2,249 counties. These declarations allow small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, small non-farm businesses, small businesses engaged in aquaculture and most private, non-profit organizations of any size affected by the drought to apply for SBA working capital loans of up to $2 million. Counselors from SBA's network of 14,000 resource partners are helping rural entrepreneurs by sharing business continuity tools and long-term strategies to enable these companies to survive and grow. In the case of hardship, SBA is offering upon request the deferment of loan payments on SBA disaster assistance loans for up to six months. SBA is reminding commercial lenders of SBA guaranteed loans of the ability to consider deferral of loan payments in hardship cases. SBA's 68 district offices stand ready to provide support and information to all drought impacted small businesses.
In recent weeks, the Administration has taken a number of steps, including:
- Authorized a two-month extension for emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres through Nov. 30, 2012, freeing up forage and feed for ranchers.
- Announced its intent to purchase up to $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken, and catfish for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks, to help relieve pressure on American livestock producers and bring the nation's meat supply in line with demand.
- Allowed emergency loans to be made earlier in the season.
- Filed special provisions with the federal crop insurance program to allow haying or grazing of cover crops without impacting the insurability of planted 2013 spring crops.
- Authorized up to $5 million in grants to evaluate and demonstrate agricultural practices that help farmers and ranchers adapt to drought.
- Granted a temporary variance from the National Organic Program's pasture practice standards for organic ruminant livestock producers in 16 states in 2012.
- Authorized nearly $28 million in existing funds from its Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.
- Initiated transfer of $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and ranchers rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought.
- Authorized haying and grazing of Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easement areas in drought-affected areas where haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands.
- Lowered the reduction in the annual rental payment to producers on CRP acres used for emergency haying or grazing from 25 percent to 10 percent in 2012.
- Simplified the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40 percent.
Also, to date, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has followed USDA's disaster declarations and has issued agency declarations covering more than 1,630 counties, providing a pathway for small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and non-farm small businesses that are economically affected by the drought in their community to apply for SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).
The Obama Administration, with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack's leadership, has worked tirelessly to strengthen rural America, maintain a strong farm safety net, and create opportunities for America's farmers and ranchers. U.S. agriculture is currently experiencing one of its most productive periods in American history thanks to the productivity, resiliency, and resourcefulness of our producers. A strong farm safety net is important to sustain the success of American agriculture. USDA's crop insurance program currently insures 264 million acres, 1.14 million policies, and $110 billion worth of liability on about 500,000 farms. In response to tighter financial markets, USDA has expanded the availability of farm credit, helping struggling farmers refinance loans. Since 2009, USDA has provided more than 128,000 loans to family farmers totaling more than $18 billion. Over 50 percent of the loans went to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.