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Aid Is a Bumper Crop for Farmers

Minutes of monthly Farm Service Agency meetings, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that some Tulare growers have pushed the disaster program to the limit. In March 2004, for example, a grower sought a payment on 27.6 acres of nectarines he said he had grown three years earlier. After a field inspection and aerial photographs, the committee concluded that "there was no evidence of nectarines. The slides distinctly show pulled trees in bunches on the 27.6 acres."

A catfish farmer who put in a claim for fish lost because of heat "was unable to substantiate the viability of the operation." A field inspection found "a lack of evidence of fish or fish bones in the dried up ponds."

Both applications were rejected.

'Everything but the Kitchen Sink'

Congressional sponsors of disaster legislation offer a variety of reasons for their bills. They say federally subsidized insurance doesn't cover all of a farmer's losses, and disaster aid fills the gaps. It helps to stabilize rural economies, which don't have many other options. And it offsets rising fuel and production costs while securing cheap food for Americans.

"Any suggestion that things are good in ag country does not meet the reality test," Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of a key House Agriculture subcommittee, observed in a floor speech last year. His office recently helped to coordinate a day of lobbying by farmers and agriculture groups pressing for billions in aid for the 2005 and 2006 crop years.

To get those costly disaster packages passed, their sponsors spread the money around. Recent disaster bills include millions for cottonseed producers and pecan and sugar beet growers; set-asides for farmers in Virginia and North Carolina; and $7.2 million for a transportation project benefiting a sugar grower's co-op in Hawaii. Since 1990, legislators have muscled through eight major disaster packages and several smaller provisions covering every year except the past two, including money for clams, oysters, shellfish, hay, sod, shrimp and lobster.

Many of the recent disaster packages have been shoehorned into large appropriations bills, including a military construction bill in 2004. That means legislators do not even get an opportunity to vote directly on the subsidies.

"The problem with ad hoc disaster programs is that in order to get them passed, they throw in everything but the kitchen sink," said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union. The industry group favors overhauling the present system to make it more rigorous while still targeting farmers in need. "There's a lot of ways we can do this better. We need to start looking at the underlying cause of the problem, not just the symptoms."

Buis added that farmers don't expect to have all of their losses covered by disaster payments. "They're not being made whole now," he said. "What we have is a horrible public policy that needs to be fixed so we help farmers who truly have a need."

Among the ideas being considered by Buis and others is guaranteeing a portion of a farmer's income.

In recent months, lawmakers from the Plains states have pressed for billions more in disaster aid to cover the past two crop years, contending that farmers have been devastated by drought and rising costs. The Bush administration opposes the additional aid, noting that crops were at "record or near record" levels in 2005 and that millions would go to farmers who do not really need the money.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) wrote that not all farmers have "had the good fortune to produce above average crops," adding that the $4 billion wouldn't "come close to making farmers whole."

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