By MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is making good on an election-year promise to Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln to give hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to farmers who lost crops due to weather.
Many of the farmers eligible are in Arkansas and the Southeast. Lincoln, caught in a bruising race for re-election, has pushed for the aid, and she secured a promise from White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in July that the money would be paid out. It took the Agriculture Department almost two months to figure out how to do it, since such disaster aid is usually subject to congressional approval.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Wednesday that the $630 million in disaster aid will come from a pot of money at USDA that is often used to supplement nutrition programs but is also designated to restore the purchasing power of farms. Vilsack said the aid to cotton, rice, soybean and sweet potato producers would do that. Also included are payments for poultry producers, a major industry in Arkansas, and fish farms, which also have a presence in the state.
The amount is about half of what Lincoln, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, had pushed for. It would go to 26 states and 1,000 counties, Vilsack pointed out, but the bulk of the cash will go to Southern farmers. All but two counties in Arkansas are eligible for assistance.
"This relief is long-overdue, and I have made certain that producers who are eligible will receive this assistance in the coming weeks -- not months or years as is too often the case," Lincoln said.
Critics were quick to call the money an election-year giveaway. The threshold for the assistance is low -- farmers only have to show 5 percent losses to be eligible.
"Should we just ask every American who feels like they took a five percent hit last year if they'd like some money?" said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group that protests farm subsidies. "It's outrageous."
Vilsack said the money is part of a USDA effort to better distribute disaster aid around the country. The 2008 farm bill, which authorizes agriculture programs, set up a new program to administer disaster aid but it favored Midwestern states.
"We are just simply trying to make this program as easy as possible and as simple as possible," Vilsack said.
Lincoln says she makes no apologies for helping the farm industry in her state and elsewhere. Southern crops like rice and cotton are more expensive to grow, she says, and heavy rains decimated many crops twice in 2009.
"They put twice as much money into producing the crop and at the end of the day found out they would get maybe half of what it was worth," she said of the farmers.
She said Vilsack had promised her that none of the money used for the disaster assistance will be diverted from dollars designated for school nutrition programs.
Vilsack says USDA has used this program for disaster assistance several times before, but critics say the White House took an easy out by dodging Congress. Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said he doesn't like the precedent the disaster distribution sets.
"From the beginning, I questioned whether USDA had the legal authority to do this and I stand by that," he said.
Lincoln's opponent in November, Republican John Boozman, has said the aid should have been distributed legislatively. He did not respond to a request for comment on the announcement of the farm aid.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senate Republicans' campaign arm, called the aid a "back room deal" by the administration. Spokeswoman Amber Marchand said the disaster assistance won't help Lincoln after she supported health care overhaul earlier this year.
Lincoln voted for the health care legislation but has said there are areas of the bill she wants to improve.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.