Drought Aid Sinks as Congress Sits on Farm Bill, Vilsack Says

Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

A corn field in Le Roy, Illinois.

Written with Mark Drajem

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today mentioned submerging Washington D.C. under 20 feet of water — but it wasn’t meant as a threat to Congress for failing to pass a new farm bill.

Vilsack, at a drought forum in Washington, was pointing out the aid his department had provided to farmers and ranchers as the worst drought in 50 years took hold on the country’s midsection. Under the recently expired farm bill, U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs helped reduce water drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains by at least 860,000 acre feet, Vilsack said. That’s more than enough to inundate the nation’s capital.

Without a new farm bill, the government’s efforts to help agricultural producers weather the drought and plan for the future are being hampered, Vilsack said. He urged Congress to take action.

“They need to understand the consequences because there is no fallback option,” he told reporters today after speaking at the forum. “The risks of inaction are so significant that it out to propel people to creativity.”

The fate of the farm bill, which will govern USDA programs over the next five years or so, is currently tied up in negotiations aimed at averting $600 billion in spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to start taking effect in January — the so-called fiscal cliff.

“The Obama administration remains committed to doing everything it can to help farmers, ranchers, businesses and local and county governments meet drought related challenges,”  Vilsack said at the forum, according to the USDA. “Drought recovery is a long-term proposition, and we will continue to partner with producers to see it through.”

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