Pawlenty: Drought aid request likely
ST. PAUL - Minnesota will seek a federal drought disaster declaration later this week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty predicted Tuesday as unusually dry conditions are jeopardizing crop yields.
A swath of Minnesota - from the southwest corner to the far northeastern region - is experiencing a moderate to severe drought, according to state agriculture statistics.
Federal officials have been assessing drought conditions on a county-by-county basis and are expected to report their findings Thursday. The Farm Service Agency assessment is the first step toward requesting a federal declaration.
"Our view of it and the early returns are we most certainly will qualify for disaster declarations in many counties across Minnesota," Pawlenty told reporters after he toured a Little Falls-area farm hit hard by the drought.
Initially, only four to six counties might qualify for the declaration, the governor said, but more are expected if the state doesn't see significant rainfall as the summer progresses.
A drought declaration by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns would provide some federal aid, such as low-interest loans, to farmers.
That may be the only federal drought assistance Minnesota sees this year.
The state is requesting that Congress consider allowing Minnesota farmers suffering from drought conditions to apply for emergency aid approved earlier this year.
That relief package covered disasters during the 2005 and 2006 growing seasons, but in a letter to U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Pawlenty suggested it be expanded to include the 2007 crop year.
"I think it's highly unlikely," Peterson said in an interview.
The House Agriculture Committee chairman, Peterson said Democrats struggled to get that emergency relief included in a bill funding the Iraq war.
He said aid for 2007 drought victims would have to be included in the next supplemental war spending bill, expected this fall.
"I just have a real question about whether there's going to be (support for that), given what we went through this last time," he said.
Peterson said he tried to include funding for a permanent disaster relief program in the farm bill the House approved last week, but couldn't because of opposition from the Bush administration and in Congress.
Minnesota is the only state in the upper Midwestern Corn Belt facing serious drought conditions this year, though southern states face similar or worse problems.
"It hasn't reached critical mass at this point," Peterson said of Minnesota's situation, adding the situation could get worse.
Many Minnesota farmers have crop damage insurance, which will allow them to be compensated for losses this year, officials said.
The problems facing farmers this year are compounded by drought conditions last summer - some of which was alleviated by late-season rainfall - and below-average precipitation over the winter, said Doug Hartwig, director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Minnesota.
Many of the state's 87 counties - with the exception of the far northwest - are experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions, recent U.S. Drought Monitor analyses show.
Crops in moderately dry areas could still rebound, but rain is needed.
"What's happening now is we've got this continuing heat and no precipitation," Hartwig said. "We're not getting the timely rains that they had last fall that helped make the crop develop."
This is the second dry year in a row for the state. However, in 2006 northwestern Minnesota saw the worst conditions. That region on average is faring well this year. Crops generally look good along the Red River Valley, Hartwig said.
Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson, who toured the Morrison County farm with Pawlenty, said 70 percent of the state's corn is in fair to poor condition.
"We've got some serious problems," he said.
A federal disaster declaration could take a few weeks, although Johanns is scheduled to be in Minnesota next Tuesday for Farmfest, the annual farm trade show near Redwood Falls. That area of the state is experiencing a moderate drought.
In the meantime, the state will promote the Upper Midwest Haylist, a telephone and Internet resource that connects farmers in need of livestock feed with others who can provide it. Pawlenty also said the state could provide additional aid to farmers.
Dry conditions can have a ripple effect. There is a concern that some drought-stressed feed corn could contain nitrate levels that cause health problems in livestock.
The state Agriculture Department will be working to inform farmers about the nitrate issue, said Mike Schommer, the agency's communications director.