Disaster money has become one of Kansas biggest cash crops.
But don’t blame the heat.
Rather, blame the bureaucracy.
The payments are a big deal in the Sunflower State.
Kansas farmers and ranchers were paid nearly $160 million in 2010, the latest year for which totals were published, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reports.
In fact, disaster payments that year were Kansas’ sixth largest cash crop.
Expect another bountiful harvest this year. The choking drought is more widespread than any in decades, and crop prices are bumping into near-record territory.
Kansas farmers and ranchers are used to disasters and the disaster declarations that drive up that spending. Fifty of the same Kansas counties declared disaster areas last week were disaster areas a year ago because of drought in western and central Kansas.
Some farmers were hit with losses yet still produced a statewide 449 million bushels of corn, which was the fourth largest crop in recent history since 2000, and the state’s most widely grown feed grain, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics, USDA’s crop reporting agency for the state.
Actual costs are difficult to forecast because disaster payments are entitlement programs, much like Medicaid.
“We don’t know what the costs will be,” said Adrian Polansky, USDA’s top executive in Kansas.
But think tens of billions.
“After just about any sort of crop damage, Congress jumps in to declare a ‘disaster’ and distribute millions of dollars to farmers, whether or not particular farmers actually sustained substantial damage,” analyst Chris Edwards wrote in a 2009 Cato Institute report.
It puts federal spending for all farm subsidies – including disaster payments and subsidized crop insurance – somewhere between $10 billion and $30 billion annually. The Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week declared 82 Kansas counties – more than three quarters of the state – federal disaster areas, making farmers there eligible for various low-cost loans and other measures to cope with the expanding drought.
The Kansas counties are among 1,016 in 26 states nationwide, declared disaster areas July 11 – a single-day record, the USDA says.
And the cash is coming more quickly.
The USDA says it has found a way to get low-cost loans, relaxed grazing restrictions and other drought relief to farmers and ranchers about 40 percent faster than before.
The big reason so many counties were deemed disaster areas goes beyond the widespread drought, though that counts, of course.
The USDA streamlined the way it determines how badly individual counties are suffering from natural disasters – the so-called Secretarial designation.
“By amending the Secretarial disaster designation, we’re creating a more efficient and effective process,” Vilsack said.
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