Usda Chief Warns Of Farm Disaster But Resists Calls For Drought Aid

Posted: June 15, 1988

WASHINGTON — The drought searing much of the United States could become a national disaster if steady rains don't start falling soon, Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng said yesterday.

Lyng told the Senate Agriculture Commitee that the drought, which has fried crops in the Plains States, is now hurting farmers in the Corn Belt and the South.

Still, the agriculture secretary refused to support any proposals floated by the senators for special federal aid to drought-stricken farmers. He called the special relief premature.

"For the nation as a whole, it's a little early to say we have a disaster - but the potential is there," Lyng said. "But it's still only mid-June, and July weather is more important."

The dry weather is affecting crops across much of the country, stretching down to Texas, west to California and east across the Corn Belt. But sufficient soil moisture still exists in much of the South and the Corn Belt to save the crops if rain begins falling, Lyng said.

Only in North Dakota and parts of Montana and Minnesota has the drought been so severe that much of the crop is lost. Lyng's refusal to endorse further aid frustrated senators from those states.

"The disaster is here. The emergency is already upon us," said Sen. John Melcher (D., Mont.).

While the discussion took place in Washington, there was some reason for hope in the drought area.

Nearly an inch of rain fell in Minot, N.D., and six-tenths of an inch bathed Orlando, Fla., while smaller amounts soaked Grand Forks, N.D., International Falls, Minn., and Vero Beach, Fla., the National Weather Service reported.

Grain prices have been climbing in recent weeks as smaller crops of wheat and corn become more likely with every day the Farm Belt bakes. The Agriculture Department already has cut its estimate of the winter wheat crop by 50 million bushels, or 3 percent, and reductions in other grain crops are expected.

Higher food prices and a modest increase in inflation could result if the drought continues to wilt crops, but Lyng cautioned that it was too early to assume a dramatic drop in farm production.

But improving farm prices would result in reduced farm subsidies, possibly saving the government "hundreds of millions of dollars," said Ewen M. Wilson, assistant secretary of agriculture for economics.

Members of the Senate committee suggested using those savings to pay for increased aid to drought-stricken areas, but Lyng did not endorse the proposal.

Lyng has implemented several programs recently to help farmers deal with the drought, including an emergency feed program that will pay 50 percent of the cost of livestock feed for farmers that qualify.

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