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US senators press for prevented crop coverage: USDA still working on insurance programs

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is requesting more federal support for farmers who cannot plant crops because of bad weather.

Heitkamp wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking that he take prevented planting losses into account in a new safety net program created by the 2014 Farm Bill.

U.S. Sen. John Thune joined Heitkamp in writing the letter, along with U.S. Senators Tim Johnson, D-N.D., John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Al Franken, D-M.N.

“Loss of a crop due to prevented planting can be just as devastating to a farming operation as production losses due to drought, flooding, or other natural disasters,” the senators wrote. “Providing the most accurate picture of farm revenue is critical because the calculated threshold will determine which farms will receive assistance and at what levels.”

As the Department of Agriculture continues to roll out the Farm Bill, specific details of commodity title crop insurance programs are still up in the air.

At a May roundtable hosted by U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., Bart Fischer, chief economist for the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, told farmers sign-up for commodity titles should roll around in the late fall, possibly spilling over into 2015.

The senators wrote that the USDA must use unplanted acres in each farmer’s and county’s revenue calculations under the new Agricultural Risk Coverage program.

With the ARC program, farmers can choose between county coverage and individual farm coverage. There are pros and cons for each, depending on crop type, said Andrew Swenson, a North Dakota State University farm resource management specialist.

The USDA estimates revenue using average county yields, which can affect those who pick the countywide option.The senators called on USDA to exclude prevented planting acreage when determining the benchmark average yield per farm.

The worst season for prevented plant acres in North Dakota was in 2011 when 5.6 million acres were left unplanted, according to state Farm Service Agency statistics. The senators cited drought, flooding and natural disasters as possible setbacks for farmers.

Swenson said he would support Heitkamp’s proposal. But, there is currently a cap on federal payments per acre, he said.

“Handling prevented planting ... would be beneficial to farmers enrolled in the ARC program who have prevented planting because it would increase the probability of payments,” Swenson said.

USDA risk management officials did not return requests for comment.

Heitkamp recently failed in her plea to USDA regulators to push back federal insurance deadlines for corn crops.