Jun 16 2007

Alabama farmers soon may get relief

Huntsville Times

By Brian Lawson

Lawmakers push for disaster declaration because of drought

Paperwork from county, state and federal agriculture officials will be flying from here to Washington, D.C., in the next few days, as calls for relief from Alabama's brutal drought are being heeded.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johans on Thursday directed the Alabama chapter of the Farm Service Agency, or FSA, to gather damage assessments for all of Alabama's 67 counties.

Johans' action follows requests this week from U.S. Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, and Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, to declare North Alabama and all of Alabama a federal disaster area. The North Alabama region faces its worst drought conditions in more than 100 years. Shelby said Thursday that 99.5 percent of Alabama is facing severe drought conditions.

County officials have until Tuesday to provide damage assessment reports to the FSA in Montgomery. The reports will be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday, said Kathy Steadmon, chief of conservation and support programs for the Alabama Farm Service Agency in Montgomery.

A disaster declaration from Johans could come before the end of June, Steadmon said, and some immediate relief in the form of low-interest loans, opening of grazing lands and other aid would follow.

Cramer said he is working to improve mechanisms for rapid response to emergency conditions in the 2007 Farm Bill, which is scheduled to be voted on later this year.

Cramer said relief money for farmers in the area also could come in the form of supplemental budget requests scheduled to be addressed by Congress in September.

Locally, Alabama Regional Extension Agent Jerry Thompson said cattle farmers are being devastated by the drought, due to a lack of hay and pasture land that has been overworked because of dry conditions that stretch back to fall 2005.

"People are making do with 20 to 25 percent of a normal hay crop, and there is no reserve," Thompson said. "The big problem now is Alabama is in the business of producing calves. We produce them here, and they are sent somewhere else to be finished. But that factory is closing because people are having to sell their cows."

Thompson said local cattle markets are seeing to 50 percent to 100 percent volume increases in the number of cows for sale because farmers lack feed. He said low-interest loans would help buy hay from other areas, but area herds have been sharply reduced.

"People work for years to get their cows the way they want them to be. All of a sudden, maybe a lifetime of work is gone - that's depressing,'' he said.