Pawlenty to ask for agricultural disaster declarationby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty got a first-hand look at drought-damaged crops in central Minnesota on Tuesday. Pawlenty toured a Little Falls area farm, where a lack of rain has wilted the corn crop and stunted the hay crop. The governor says by the end of the week he expects to ask the federal government to declare many of Minnesota's driest counties disaster areas in an effort to free up federal and state assistance for farmers.
Little Falls, Minn. — Ron Hourscht milks 85 dairy cows on his farm near Little Falls, and he grows 400 acres of corn and alfalfa to feed his herd. The 62-year-old has farmed this land since the late 1960s. With only about two inches of rain so far this growing season, this has been one of the driest summers Hourscht has ever seen.
"It seems like the clouds will come, then they just either dissolve or disintegrate or fall apart or go around us," Hourscht says. "Whatever they choose to do, it'll thunder and lightning and we don't get anything."
This spring, Hourscht was sure he'd be able to cut his alfalfa four times to make hay for his cows. But now he says after a second cutting, he's not likely to get another crop this year.
His corn crop is in worse shape. On a good year he can get 200 bushels an acre, to feed to his cows and sell on the open market. This year Hourscht isn't sure there will be anything to harvest.
"There isn't much there for corn right now," he says. "There's a few little nubbins, but it just don't amount to anything and it's only about four feet tall."
Hourscht has hay and corn in storage to feed to his cows, and crop loss insurance will help him make up the difference come harvest time.
But after touring the Hourscht farm Tuesday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the level of crop damage could be hard for some farmers to take. The governor says he'll ask the federal government to declare the hardest-hit parts of the state as disaster areas.
First, he has to look over the official USDA report on the Minnesota drought he expects will hit his desk on Thursday.
"Our view of it in the early returns are that we most certainly will qualify for disaster declaration in many counties across Minnesota," Pawlenty says. "Then, we will immediately ask the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns for a disaster declaration for those counties that qualify."
A county needs to lose 30 percent of its corn crop to be considered a disaster area. At least a half dozen Minnesota counties fit that criteria already. Gov. Pawlenty says worsening drought conditions could mean more counties will join them in the near future.
If the disaster declaration is approved, help would come as low-interest loans from the federal government. But farmers could also qualify for emergency aid in the form of payments from the state or federal government.
Pawlenty also says he'll lobby Congress to add this summer's drought damage to a recently passed disaster relief package that applies to 2005 and 2006.
But Pawlenty says there's a challenge to getting some of that emergency aid, since Minnesota is the only corn belt state dealing with a drought this year. He says that means the state will have to go it alone when it comes to getting any aid for drought-stricken farmers.
"I certainly wouldn't wish this on anybody, and I wouldn't want to wish drought on any other state. But it is probably true, with few states impacted, less members of Congress might be less directly motivated to get in there and swing the bat for drought relief," Pawlenty says.
But the governor adds that Minnesota has an advantage in U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.
Some late season rain could help out Minnesota farmers, but most think the dry conditions have already taken their toll on the state's corn crop, which needed rain in July to develop correctly.
A short harvest isn't likely to slow down the red-hot ethanol business. State agriculture officials say there should be enough corn to feed Minnesota's hungry ethanol plants.
- All Things Considered, 07/31/2007, 5:50 p.m.