Etheridge announces deal on drought aid

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington) today announced that Congressional leaders have reached an agreement to provide disaster relief to North Carolina and other Southeastern farmers affected by the current record drought.

The funding will be included in an omnibus spending bill that the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on tonight.

“This disaster assistance is a major achievement and an important step forward for America’s farmers,” said Etheridge. “Without these funds, farmers may not be able to farm next year, creating a ripple effect where rural economies suffer and consumers face higher prices at the grocery store. I urge my colleagues in Congress to pass this legislation and the President to sign it into law.”

The bill will amend a provision included in the emergency supplemental appropriations bill signed by the President in May that provided $3 billion in agriculture assistance for declared disasters in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but set a deadline of February 28, 2007, eliminating farmers affected by the drought from being covered. Today’s legislation would extend the deadline to December 31, 2007, allowing farmers affected by the drought to be eligible for direct disaster assistance.

The funds will be mandatory, meaning that there will be as much money as is needed for all eligible farmers to receive assistance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be about $600 million.

Etheridge sent a letter to President Bush in September cosigned by a bipartisan group of 54 members of Congress asking the President to request direct disaster assistance payments to farmers in his supplemental budget request for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The President did not include the funding in his request, however.

Etheridge has been working to ensure inclusion of the funding in the bill with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Majority Whip Colin Peterson and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson. In October the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on the drought’s effects on farmers at Etheridge’s request.

“2007 has not been a kind year for North Carolina’s farm families from one side of the state to the other. We appreciate the work of our congressional delegation, especially Congressman Etheridge, in trying to secure this important assistance so farmers are able to stay in business,” said N.C. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten, who joined Etheridge in announcing the funding.

On September 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 85 counties in North Carolina as primary disaster areas, including all counties in the Second Congressional District. The designation allows farmers in the affected counties to be eligible for low-interest emergency loans from U.S.D.A. Farm Service Agencies. Today’s bill would provide direct payments.