Bill Northey USDA

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Disaster relief for southern farmers hit by last year’s ravaging hurricanes and for Midwest farmers who experienced losses from historic floods in mid-March is a high priority in Washington D.C., officials told farm journalists during the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting in the capital April 7-9.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told reporters the majority of losses Iowa and Nebraska farmers experienced in the floods are covered by USDA programs. Still, Midwest senators want $3 billion in flood relief.

Peterson said Midwest farmers don’t need billions in disaster aid like farmers in Southern states, whose crops including peaches and pecans are not covered by other programs.

Bill Northey, USDA Under Secretary, agreed there is coverage for most of the losses Midwest farmers experienced in the floods this spring, but said there is no compensation for losses of grain stored in bins, which was at unprecedented levels during a time of trade wars and low commodity prices.

He said right now the cleanest thing for Congress to do would be to add provisions for stored grain to the disaster aid bill stalled in the Senate, while Peterson said he would rather see the storage losses dealt with separately.

Northey said the losses for the Midwest will vastly reduce income for 2019 for some farmers. For many this is tougher than the 2011 flood, and only eight years later, some are still paying off 2011 losses.

“It’s not a big footprint” but a deep one, Northey said. “It’s a bad situation. It’s a tough situation.”

Trade top concern

The government officials agreed trade is the topic about which they hear the most concern from farmers and ranchers today.

“There was a lot of hand wringing” about getting the Market Facilitation Program in place to help farmers with the impact of the China trade war, Northey said. “All kinds of folks argued about rates.”

The program tried to take into consideration many factors. The formulas for funding were made knowing what “we knew in August,” Northey said.

“Our hopes were we didn’t need a second payment — but we definitely did,” he said.

Other changes were made by adding sweet cherries and almonds later.

“We re-crunched the numbers,” Northey said.

In all, 600,000 farmers qualified.

“We had $8.2 billion go out,” Northey said, and the program is still in flux as production numbers for some crops, especially cotton, will be reported up to the May 1 deadline.

The program was an acknowledgement by the administration there was loss to agriculture because of trade wars, he said.

“Last year when farmers planted, they thought they would have all the trade they did at the time. Producers had no ability to un-plant one crop and plant another crop,” Northey said.

Long-term impact

Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president, said his organization supports the Market Facilitation Program.

“Times are really difficult in agriculture right now and we should not underestimate how tough it is out there,” Johnson said. “There is significant risk to lose a generation of farmers like we lost in the 1980s.”

Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, agrees trade is No. 1 on the list of concerns for his members — not only with China, but also Japan, Canada, Mexico and other partners.

Northey acknowledged the potential long-term ramifications of the trade issues, but said he is optimistic.

“There was hard impact to agriculture,” he said, and that is why there is pressure to come up with a trade agreement with China. Corn, sorghum, poultry and beef are areas where the U.S. can potentially improve its agricultural exports to China, he said.

Once the agreement is signed, it will be a “green light for domestic buyers” in China to make purchases, said Northey who, as Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa, went to China 10 times in 11 years.

“Time is of the essence,” said Ranking Ag Committee Member Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas. “Real things are happening to people.”

Sign up for our weekly CropWatch newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.