WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department, responding to widespread drought, opened conservation lands nationwide Monday to allow farmers to harvest hay or use it for livestock grazing.
The agency had already opened up land in 18 hard-hit western states to drought-stricken farmers, but Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said she hopes to encourage unaffected producers in the rest of the country to help those in need.
USDA pays landowners through the Conservation Reserve Program to make some land off-limits to grazing and farming. Veneman said the agency will cut payments by one-fourth to farmers who use the lands, unless they donate the hay they harvest to other farmers in need or let them use the land for grazing.
Farm Service Agency offices in each state may choose to limit some of the areas, but the action could affect millions of acres. However, farmers' and ranchers' groups said much of the land may be too dry to use.
"It's better than nothing,'' said Chris J. Buechle, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. "It's marginal at this point in time how useful the land is going to be.''
The agency has never before opened up all CRP land to hay harvesting and grazing, said Gerald Hrdina, chief of conservation for USDA's Farm Service Agency office in Missouri.
Producers have until Nov. 30 to apply for the emergency privileges.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pressing for more aid than the conservation land release, and on Tuesday, the Senate was expected to clear $6 billion in drought aid.
However, Veneman's agency and the rest of the Bush Administration insist the plan is too expensive and that the new six-year, $190 billion farm bill should provide enough resources to help producers.
"Opening CRP acres in the face of this catastrophe is like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg,'' said Jay Carson, spokesman for Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "This is one of the worst natural disasters our country has seen in decades.''
Veneman admonished Daschle and Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., in a letter sent Monday, that the new farm law "should break the bad fiscal habit of needing to pass emergency agriculture spending bills including drought, flood, or other supplemental payments that make it difficult for Congress to live within its budget.''