Douglas asked to pressure Congress for disaster funds

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(Host) Two key lawmakers are asking Governor Jim Douglas to pressure Congress to release emergency disaster funds for farmers.

The chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee also want the Douglas Administration to expand a state-funded farm assistance program.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Dairy farmers faced a double set of disasters this spring and summer. Floods ruined early crops of hay and turned corn fields into mud. And milk prices bottomed out at record lows – below what farmers say costs them to produce the product.

The state stepped in with an $8.6 million assistance program. But a federal disaster relief plan that would send $54 million to Vermont remains stalled in Congress.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Zuckerman says farmers are on the financial edge, and need the federal help.

(Zuckerman) “When we initiated this whole payment system, a lot of the predication was: this will get us through the fall, when the federal money will come and really be the bigger savior because that’s $54 million compared to $8.6 million.”

(Dillon) Zuckerman says Governor Douglas should use his influence with Republicans in Washington. He points out that the governor chaired President Bush’s election committees in Vermont, and that Douglas recently reached out to Republicans in the U.S. House to affect wilderness legislation.

(Zuckerman) “He made a very direct appeal earlier this fall relating to legislation in Congress. And I think he could again make a very direct appeal to people he is more likely closer to than other members of Vermont’s delegation in the Republican Party to try to move this legislation.”

(Dillon) The Douglas Administration says its working all angles to get the emergency relief bill passed. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr.

(Kerr) “It’s the season of cheap shots and zingers. The fact of that matter is that this is an enormously complicated system called Washington DC. And yeah, the governor is doing what he’s doing. I’m doing what I’m doing, what I’m able to do. Pat Leahy and Jim Jeffords are doing what they’re able to do. There is no daylight between us. We want our farmers to have this disaster relief.”

(Dillon) Zuckerman says he’s not playing politics with the issue. He says the situation is so critical that the Douglas administration needs to do everything possible to get the federal money. He says farmers are already deeply in debt to feed dealers and need help before winter.

(Zuckerman) “And it’s replacing those crop losses, and replacing that feed that is going to be the most expensive and costly aspect for farmers this winter. If you don’t have feed, you don’t make milk. And if you don’t make milk, you have no check. The farm goes out of business.”

(Dillon) The emergency state program has about $2.5 million left.

Zuckerman and his Senate counterpart, Sarah Kittell of Franklin County, have asked the administration to pay out the money before the end of the year. Zuckerman says it’s important to get the funds in farmers’ hands now. Agriculture Secretary Kerr says he’s already working on a plan to speed up the payments.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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