Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is using his existing authority to provide new flexibility and assistance in the USDA’s major conservation programs to assist livestock producers as the most wide-spread drought in seven decades intensifies.  Secretary Vilsack said, “Beginning today, USDA will open opportunities for haying and grazing on lands enrolled in conservation programs, while providing additional financial and technical assistance to help landowners through this drought. And we will deliver greater peace of mind to farmers dealing with this worsening drought by encouraging crop insurance companies to work with farmers through this challenging period. As severe weather and natural disasters continue to threaten the livelihoods of thousands of our farming families, we want you and your communities to know that USDA stands with you.”

The assistance uses the Secretary of Agriculture’s authority to help create and encourage flexibility within four USDA programs:

·        Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – Allow additional acres under CRP to be used for haying or grazing under emergency conditions.  CRP is a voluntary program that provides producers with annual rental payments on their land in exchange for planting resource-conserving crops on cropland to help prevent erosion, provide wildlife habitat and improve the environment. CRP acres can already be used for emergency haying and grazing during natural disasters to provide much needed feed to livestock. Given the widespread nature of this drought, forage for livestock is already substantially reduced. Vilsack’s action will allow lands that are not yet classified as "under severe drought," but are "abnormally dry," to be used for haying and grazing. Haying and grazing will only be allowed following the local birds’ primary nesting seasons, which have already passed in most areas. Especially sensitive lands, such as wetlands, stream buffers and rare habitats will not be eligible.

·        Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – This program provides assistance to farmers and ranchers by allowing them to modify current EQIP contracts to allow for prescribed grazing, livestock watering facilities, water conservation and other conservation activities to address drought conditions. EQIP is a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to address natural resource concerns on their agricultural and forest land. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will work closely with producers to modify existing EQIP contracts to ensure successful implementation of planned conservation practices. Where conservation activities have failed because of drought, NRCS will look for opportunities to work with farmers and ranchers to re-apply those activities. In the short term, funding will be targeted towards hardest hit drought areas.

·        Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) – Authorize haying and grazing of WRP easement areas in drought-affected areas where such haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands. WRP is a voluntary conservation easement program that provides technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers to restore and protect valuable wetland resources on their property. For producers with land currently enrolled in WRP, NRCS has expedited its Compatible Use Authorization (CUA) process to allow for haying and grazing. The compatible use authorization process offers NRCS and affected producers with the management flexibility to address short-term resource conditions in a manner that promotes both the health of the land and the viability of the overall farming operation.

·        Federal Crop Insurance Program – USDA will encourage crop insurance companies to voluntarily forego charging interest on unpaid crop insurance premiums for an extra 30 days (to Nov. 1, 2012) for spring crops. Policy holders who are unable to pay their premiums in a timely manner accrue an interest penalty of 1.25% per month until payment is made. In an attempt to help producers through this difficult time, Vilsack sent a letter to crop insurance companies asking them to voluntarily defer the accrual of any interest on unpaid spring crop premiums by producers until November. In turn, to assist the crop insurance companies, USDA will not require crop insurance companies to pay uncollected producer premiums until one month later.