Mounting disasters reveal gaps in USDA relief programs

September 22, 2021
Mounting disasters reveal gaps in USDA relief programs

A series of natural disasters has opened the eyes of Oregon farmers to the ways federal relief programs often aren’t well-suited to the state’s specialty crops.

Agriculture has suffered from wildfires, ice storms, extreme heat and severe drought over the past year, exposing “gaps” in USDA assistance that’s generally designed for major commodity crops, experts say.

“When you have a federal program that’s supposed to serve everyone, we kind of get left out,” said Tiffany Monroe, grassroots coordinator for the Oregonians for Food and Shelter agribusiness group. “We need programs to support that type of farming, but right now they’re not.”

Farmers can be disqualified from receiving disaster assistance from USDA if they haven’t bought federal crop insurance, but many growers don’t see enough benefit to sign up, she said.

Crop insurance may cost more than they’d expect to potentially gain from the coverage, and many are also dissuaded by the complexity of the requirements, Monroe said.

For example, calculating ice damage to tree limbs a hazelnut orchard is more difficult than estimating damage to a soybean field, she said. Sun-burned foliage on Christmas trees is also challenging to describe, particularly if it’s unknown whether they’ll survive.

“They are discouraged from getting insurance because these programs aren’t designed for their commodities,” Monroe said.

The USDA’s tree assistance program, which also covers bushes and vines, requires 15% mortality to kick in. However, Oregon farmers have experienced damage that hasn’t actually killed their plants, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Crop loss manifests itself in other ways, such as heat damage or smoke taint that destroys the fruit, she said.

“In most cases, you didn’t see the actual tree, bush or vine die,” Cooper said. “The program doesn’t align with where we see the value in the commodity.”

The heat dome that developed in June scorched the leaves of nursery crops, leaving some growers unable to sell most of their Japanese maples or hydrangeas, said Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

“The trees are technically not dead but they’re not salable,” he said. “You can try to rehabilitate a tree or a plant but it’s not ready for a customer.”

Conservatively, nurseries expect to lose $50 million in sales due to the heat wave, he said. “117 degrees (Fahrenheit) will harm a plant no matter what you do.”

Pay-outs from the USDA’s livestock forage program have proven insufficient for ranchers whose rangeland suffered from the drought, Cooper said.

The program compensates for roughly 60% of the value of forage, but that’s generally a low amount for rangeland compared to irrigated pastures that aren’t common in the West, she said.

“That’s in no way coming close to covering the losses they suffered or the costs of replacing that forage,” particularly due to high hay prices and low availability, Cooper said.

During a visit to Oregon this summer, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said he’d work to exempt farmers from having crop insurance to qualify for disaster relief, Monroe said. “That would be huge.”

The federal appropriations process that’s currently underway in Congress has money available for disasters that occurred between 2018 and 2020, Cooper said. Relief for 2021’s disasters could be “at least a year delayed, if not more.”

Making changes to the problems identified with some USDA’s disaster programs may have to wait until the 2023 Farm Bill, she said. “Every farm bill process, we’re always chasing gaps.”

Natural resource groups are urging Oregon lawmakers to make financial assistance available to farmers and ranchers with the $150 million allocated for disaster prevention and response during the most recent legislative session.

For example, the state government could offer loans that growers could repay if they receive federal funding, or that could be forgivable if they do not, Cooper said.

Expecting farmers who’ve suffered from compounding disasters to wait for federal help isn’t realistic, since some won’t be able to hold on financially for a year or more, Monroe said.

“In that time a farm can go bankrupt very easily,” she said. “We’ll probably be seeing some farms not make it. We’ve seen too many things happen one after another.”

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