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FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2007
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Aid requested for farmers hit hard by April freeze

By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Thursday he would expedite Alabama's request for a crop disaster declaration in up to 41 counties after last month's late freeze and an ongoing drought have wiped out much of the state's peach, wheat, corn and other crops.

Gov. Bob Riley formally requested the disaster aid in a letter dated Wednesday. After meeting with several Alabama lawmakers in Washington Thursday afternoon, Johanns said he hoped to make a decision within one week. The declaration would allow farmers to get low-interest loans to replant.

Johanns, a former Nebraska governor, also said he would consider allowing livestock grazing and letting farmers cut hay on land that the government pays farmers to set aside for conservation.

And, he said he would include Alabama in a study on federal crop insurance programs that lawmakers will use in writing a multiyear farm bill this year. The state's farmers have argued that the current federal insurance program is not working well.

$75 million in losses

State agriculture officials say Alabama farmers sustained at least $75 million in losses over Easter weekend as temperatures across the Southeast plunged below freezing. Particularly hard-hit were peaches and wheat that were soon to be harvested and in which farmers had heavy investments.

At the same time, a prolonged drought has stunted growth across the state, particularly in the north.

Democrats included cash assistance for farmers in the Iraq war spending bill, including tweaking the measure at the last minute so that it would cover many crops damaged by the late freeze. But President Bush vetoed the legislation over deadlines that Democrats wrote into the bill for pulling troops from Iraq.

Democrats failed to override Bush's veto and are now writing a new version of the spending measure, which will fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It remains unclear what, if any, domestic spending will be included in the new bill.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Mobile said there is consensus support in Congress for crop disaster money and that it might end up in the war bill again.

A fiscally conservative Republican, he defended using taxpayer money to help farmers, saying the crop insurance system isn't working well. He said the industry is the base of the state's economy and that the state deserves its share of federal aid.

"It's getting scary," he said. "The entire agriculture industry could be devastated."

Sessions hosted Thursday's meeting with Johanns along with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville.

"His response I think is going to be swift," Aderholt said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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