Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block met today with governors and members of Congress from 29 drought-afflicted farm states, but he offered little hope that Washington would provide more than normal relief assistance to farmers.
Block today designated part of Indiana as a disaster area, and Department of Agriculture officials said that at least 11 other states, including Virginia and Maryland, are seeking similar designations to open the way for emergency loans to farmers and small businesses. More state applications are expected.
The secretary also said he has ordered the Farmers Home Administration to hire more help to expedite loan requests, and he authorized more farmers to graze livestock on land idled under the payment-in-kind (PIK) program.
But during an afternoon of closed-door meetings with governors and members of Congress Block said the USDA would rely on existing disaster loans, crop insurance and the free PIK grain to help farmers through the most severe drought since 1936.
Block said that further moves may be considered after he reports to President Reagan about the effect of the summer's intense heat and dry weather on U.S. crop production.
That go-slow approach apparently disappointed many of the officials who flew here for the meeting. Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), usually an administration supporter, for example, urged Block to take a number of quick steps to cut red tape and get aid to farmers.
Others were more blunt and partisan.
Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a key House Agriculture Committee member, said he was "somewhat dismayed" that Block had assembled officials here without announcing more direct steps to give stricken farmers special grain and cash payments already authorized by law.
"I wanted to hear him tell what steps he was taking," Harkin said. "I was hoping he would say he was using his authority to implement a couple of programs he can do right away."
Texas Gov. Mark White and Jim Hightower, Texas agriculture commissioner, lambasted Block for refusing to go along with their request for federally owned corn for ranchers in southwest Texas whose rangelands have burned to a crisp under a two-year dry spell.
Hightower called today's session "three hours of hogwash . . . . They threw hot air and statistics at us. We need either rain or money . . . . They treated us like you grow mushrooms--keep them in the dark and cover them with manure."
Block responded by saying "There's a lot of politics involved in what they're saying." But he declined to commit himself to the cash relief payments or emergency grain allocations sought by the critics.
Block and other USDA officials here made it clear that the soaring costs of federal farm programs, expected to hit $23 billion this year, and the at least $9 billion expense of the PIK program are limiting their ability to deliver extra aid to farmers.
William Lesher, assistant secretary for economics, citing budget pressures, said, "We're not interested in providing billions more of assistance . . . . You can't do all the things that people want you to do or all that we would like to do."
The USDA officials said that the surplus-reducing PIK program which provides free grain and cotton to farmers who agree not to plant this year, will bail out many whose crops otherwise would have perished in the drought.
Block indicated that further relief steps would not be weighed until after publication of data in 10 days that will reveal the extent of crop losses due to the continued heat.
A USDA forecast last month, based on information through July, said that corn and soybean production, vital to livestock feeding and export trade, would be down 38 and 19 percent, respectively.
Some private forecasters now foresee an additional loss of $1 billion bushels of corn due to the August heat and more deterioration of soybean yields, despite recent rain in a few parts of the Midwest.
Block today repeated his earlier assurances that the United States nonetheless would have ample amounts of basic grains for domestic and export sales.
In response to questions here, the secretary said he felt confident that the president would not limit grain sales to the Soviet Union in retaliation for the Soviet's downing this week of a South Korean airliner. Block said that Reagan has stated publicly that farmers would not be singled out in the event of trade sanctions against Moscow.
"I haven't talked to the State Department or the White House on this question," Block said. "I didn't feel it was anything necessary to be concerned about."
Dole, who like Block had lobbied the administration vigorously for the recent renewal of the five-year grain agreement with the Soviets, also spoke strongly against imposition of a new agricultural embargo.