Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng said yesterday that the government plans no special new federal aid for drought-stricken farmers in the Southeast, but he promised to cut red tape and speed help under existing disaster programs.
Lyng described the months-long drought as "painfully severe" across most of the region and said he believes crop losses will be "gigantic," perhaps in the $1 billion range, and will "seriously and dramatically" affect the region's economy.
The secretary said the economic losses from crop devastation, along with debt problems faced by many farmers, will touch "every community" in the drought zone that has parched much of Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.
"Farmers spend all the money they get in these communities. When their income drops, the whole community suffers," Lyng said.
The secretary also announced changes in various Agriculture Department programs that he said will help ease the drought's effects. He said a Washington-based task force headed by James Boillot, a deputy assistant secretary, has been assigned to expedite aid to farmers.
Lyng said he had ordered the department's "response time" to requests for individual aid and disaster declarations -- which open the way for low-interest disaster loans and other federal assistance -- to be cut "from the usual days or weeks to the absolute minimum."
The secretary's announcement followed a report from a task force headed by George Dunlop, an assistant secretary, which earlier this week visited some of the region's hardest-hit farming areas. Dunlop predicted yesterday crop losses ranging to 100 percent in some cases.
Lyng said that on Monday he will visit parts of south-central Pennsylvania, also afflicted by dryness since early spring, and a second task force will go to Maryland, Virginia and Delaware to complete a USDA survey of conditions in a dry belt that extends through the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states.
Lyng said potential crop losses in the South would have little impact on overall U.S. supplies of major commodities, all of which are in surplus and most of which are anticipating bumper harvests in other agricultural areas.
He acknowledged complaints about USDA's slowness in reacting to the weather crisis, but said it has taken time to comply with rules governing emergency declarations.
"I think I would be misleading people if I suggested that the federal government is going to be able to come in and save all these farmers," he said. "But we're going to do the best we can do to minimize as much as we possibly can in a compassionate way.