Heartland farmers and ranchers have weathered many storms. Over the years, they’ve tamed and tilled land once dubbed the Great American Desert, developing it into one of the most fertile food-producing areas in the world.
But in recent months, a lack of rainfall, coupled with intense heat, has plunged much of the country into a historic droughtthat has farmers and ranchers rightfully concerned about how their crops and livestock will survive and how that will affect their families and communities.
In my home state of Nebraska, I’ve witnessed firsthand the drought-stricken fields and pastures stretching from the Panhandle to the Missouri River.
There’s no doubt these dry conditions, now impacting about 80 percent of the contiguous United States, are among the worst in decades. Agricultural producers stand to be most directly affected by the drought. Some ranchers have already begun to sell off portions of their herds because of increased feed and forage costs.(Related: Drought Aid for Farmers Runs Dry in Washington.)
Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects increases in most farm commodity prices, it is important to remember that there are many other factors that influence the sticker price at your local supermarket, including packaging and marketing expenses, transportation and energy costs.
The net change in food prices directly related to the drought will likely warrant little change at the register. According to the USDA, the consumer price index for food is expected to be on par for 2012 and increase slightly in 2013. (Related: Ag Secretary: We Promise to Help Drought-Stricken.)
Despite current conditions, agriculture has been a bright spot in the U.S. economy. In Nebraska, the $17 billion-a-year industry accounts for more than 31 percent of all jobs across the state, which boasts the second-lowest unemployment rate in the country.
Ag experts are working hard to help manage the negative effects of the drought.
I recently visited the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where a consortium of experts is monitoring every aspect of the drought’s impact — from livestock welfare to insect populations. Their comprehensive coverage provides risk management information and best practices for farmers and ranchers coping with the lack of moisture. They also provide informed suggestions to state and federal officials on how to assist through thoughtful policy.
I contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on multiple occasions to ensure necessary actions are being taken to help relieve pressure on producers. In response, USDA opened some Conservation Reserve Program lands for emergency haying and grazing. Additionally, farmers in counties with USDA disaster designations may be eligible for low-interest loans to help them get over the hump in this difficult time.
Despite these efforts, more should be done. I was disheartened that the Senate opted to go home for August without extending much-needed, fiscally-responsible disaster relief for farmers and ranchers across the country. Once again, politics is obstructing productivity. Helping those impacted by Mother Nature should be nonpartisan, so I don’t see why some in Washington are so determined to delay assistance for those who feed and fuel America.
Ag producers are depending on Congress to pass a farm bill this year. I’ve heard over and over again from Nebraskans that crop insurance is the best protection against damaging weather conditions.
I supported the Senate-passed farm bill, which strengthens crop insurance provisions and extends disaster assistance programs for livestock producers, which expired last fall. The House of Representatives needs to approve a farm bill that does so when Congress resumes session in September. (Related: President in Iowa: Congress Needs to Pass Farm Bill.)
Action in Washington, combined with the ongoing efforts by our agricultural experts to mitigate the effects of this drought will ensure that agriculture remains a strong pillar of the U.S. economy that provides good jobs and feeds the world. The strength of our ag sector depends on the ability of our farmers and ranchers to do what they do best, even in the worst of conditions.
Mike Johanns, a Republican, is the junior senator from Nebraska. Prior to his election to the U.S. Senate, Johanns served as the 28th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the 38th Governor of Nebraska.