During my August travels, Nebraskans brought up many pressing issues. However, no concern was greater than this summer's drought and its effect on our ag producers, our food supply and a large portion of Nebraska's economy.
The most recent reminder of the devastating effects has been the wild fires of north central and northwestern Nebraska. Massive fires blazed in the Niobrara region last month, and before we could catch our breath the dry conditions ignited again. The three recent panhandle fires, which began when lightning struck the dry, moisture-deprived terrain, resulted in the evacuation of several communities, threatening hundreds of homes and damaging dozens of buildings.
I held a number of drought roundtables during the August work period to hear firsthand the challenges facing farmers, ranchers, first responders and others who are bearing the brunt of these natural disasters. As agricultural production is such a large part of Nebraska's economy, we must ensure those affected have a strong risk management program. That's what crop insurance provides. Unfortunately, several other drought mitigation programs expired last year because authors of the 2008 farm bill only funded these programs for four instead of five years. This budgeting gimmick was short sighted and now our producers are left shouldering the burden.
The Senate-passed farm bill extends these programs for five years and provides assistance for 2012 losses. The House Agriculture Committee's bill would prescribe similar assistance. Now that Congress is back in session, we've seen a renewed push from the agriculture sector to get to work on the farm bill. I echo their sentiment. As a member of the Senate Ag Committee, I was proud of the work we conducted to produce a smart, fiscally-responsible farm bill, which passed the Senate with support from both sides of the aisle. Once the House passes its version of the farm bill, we can begin work on a compromise bill that maintains support for farm risk management programs without adding to the deficit. My hope is that the House will take swift action. In the meantime, I continue to encourage those affected and in need of assistance to contact their local United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) office. Many farmers who live in USDA disaster designated counties may be eligible for low-interest Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans.
I was pleased to support Governor Heineman's many requests for Federal assistance in dealing with the drought, and thankfully, USDA responded swiftly. I continue to encourage the USDA to think creatively and look for new ideas and solutions. I also remind the agency and this Administration that efforts to impose new burdensome regulations are a bad idea, particularly at a time when producers are facing so many drought-related challenges. We must ensure our farmers and ranchers have the tools to continue providing fuel, food and fiber to our growing population.