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Opinion: Disasters, decisions weigh heavy in farm country

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Natural disasters have wreaked havoc on the United States over the past year. Missouri has seen floods and tornadoes, and many others have experienced hurricanes, snowstorms, wildfires and more.

On June 3, Congress passed a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill to assist Americans in recovering from these disasters. Over $5.2 billion of this is targeted toward the U.S. Department of Agriculture and related programs, including $3 billion in farm disaster assistance. All Missouri members of Congress voted in favor of the bill.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt fought especially hard to make sure the aid package included damage to grain that was stored on farms, and the rest of the Missouri delegation strongly supported his efforts. This spring’s upper Missouri River flooding in Nebraska, Iowa and northwest Missouri ruined thousands of bushels of corn and soybeans when floodwaters inundated grain bins with far too little warning to evacuate the crops to higher ground.

Many Missouri fields have been covered by floodwaters this spring. When the waters recede, they often leave sand, trash and other debris in their wake. The aid package allocates $558 million to the emergency conservation program, which helps farmers and ranchers recover damaged farmland and put it back into production.

The bill designates $435 million for watershed protection and flood prevention practices, intended to help with rural watershed recovery. A portion of this money will help repair levee damage and some will help clean up debris impairing waterways. This could be extremely helpful to many rural communities with numerous levee breaches and few financial resources to fix them.

One major unknown remaining in the bill is how much additional assistance, if any, will be given to farmers who were prevented by the weather from planting their crops this spring.

The bill authorizes the USDA secretary to assist farmers with up to 90% of their losses. Typically, crop insurance’s prevented planting coverage only provides payment of about 55% of a loss. This often does not even cover the costs a farmer incurs just to keep farming another year, such as rent or mortgage payments, equipment payments and any fertilizer or pesticides already applied to the ground.

While we are thankful Congress has recognized the financial stress these disasters cause, unfortunately the bill does not give farmers an easy roadmap to make decisions. The USDA secretary has discretion to provide assistance, but any assistance on prevented planting counts against the bill’s overall $3 billion cap on farm disaster assistance payments. We expect the USDA to give guidance in the near future regarding what level of assistance will be provided.

To help farmers make well-informed planting decisions, the Missouri Farm Bureau is hosting a telephone town hall at 5:30 p.m. on June 11. This public service is free. For those interested in participating, go to MOFB.org/flood to register or to listen to the recorded audio after the event.

Eric Bohl is director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau in Columbia. He can be reached at publicaffairs@mofb.com.

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