With drought conditions worsening across much of the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing some relief for farmers and ranchers.

The current drought has been called the worst since the one that produced the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Some 1500 counties have currently been declared disaster areas. In those counties, farmers are eligible for emergency loans.

But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said more action was needed. The USDA has opened up 3.8 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land for cattle to graze on. The secretary also said a deal had been brokered with crop insurance companies, who have agreed to a 30-day interest-free suspension of payments that will give farmers and ranchers some breathing room.

"All of that is important work, and its an indication of the importance we place on this," Vilsack said.

The USDA has also modified its conservation program, to allow farmers and ranchers more time to meet the requirements they have for taking some land out of use. But real help will need to come from the legislative branch of government.

"The reality is the big opportunity for help is in Congress' willingness to complete its work, particularly in the House of Representatives, to get what I refer to as a 'food, farm, and jobs' bill through the (legislative) process," Vilsack said.

There's a bill before Congress right now that would "resurrect and resume disaster assistance particularly for livestock producers and some speciality crop folks," Vilsack said.

Such legislation may not be forthcoming, however, as Congress is nearing its summer recess without having moved it forward. Conservatives are concerned that the bill would increase spending by too much. 

But, Vilsack said, the executive branch will continue to try and take action to help farmers. He said President Barack Obama has asked him to convene a meeting of the Rural Council, to include all federal agencies, and encourage them to provide any assistance they can. The Small Business Administration, for example, is providing additional credit opportunities.

"The most direct effect and assistance can come from Congressional action — getting these disaster programs back in place, and getting a 'food, farm, and jobs' bill through the [legislative] process," Vilsack said.


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