Congress returned to Washington last week with a challenging agenda. The House of Representatives has less than 10 days of work scheduled before the end of the current fiscal year. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to be in recess the last week of September. A few appropriations bills will probably be approved this month, including the one for agriculture. But there is virtually no chance that Congress will approve all 12 appropriations bills needed to keep the government running by the end of September so once again a “continuing resolution” will be needed.

Farmers and ranchers who experienced weather-related losses this year need to document the losses by September 30, the date that the SURE program expires. Crop producers do not need to harvest or sell their 2011 crops before Sept. 30 to claim a loss but the losses do need to be documented by then. Producers need to contact their FSA office and/or their crop insurance agent to start the paperwork documenting production losses. Since SURE payments are based on national average price and production levels, payments cannot be made until after the end of the crop marketing year. That means actual payments for 2011-crop losses won’t be made until late 2012 or early 2013.

Crops planted for harvest in 2012 will not be covered under SURE at all unless Congress takes action, which is pretty unlikely. So far USDA has paid out more than $2 billion for the 2008 crops and $625 million for the 2009 crops under the SURE program. It’s not yet known how much will be paid out for 2010 crops. Producers can file for payments under SURE for previously-documented 2010-crop losses now.

Last week the so-called “super committee” of 12 congressmen (6 Dems/6 GOP) held its first meeting. The meeting was mostly about organization and administrative issues and some discussion about the causes of the growing debt problem. The first public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13. Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf will be the first person to testify. Some members of Congress are proposing legislation that would charge the super committee with “creating jobs.” But for now the assigned goal of the committee remains to “reduce future budget deficits.”

Approaching deadlines for disaster assistance programs. Bruce Nelson, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) Administrator, is reminding producers the deadline for filing a notice of loss under the Livestock Forage Disaster Program ends January 30, 2012. Producers must complete a Notice of Loss claim within 30 days of the loss under the Livestock Indemnity Program. Fact sheets about these programs can be found at

Progress on free trade bills? Maybe. The House voted this week on a bill that extends the lapsed Generalized System of Preferences until August 2013. This legislation allows for the duty free entry of 4,800 products from 129 developing countries and territories to promote economic growth in those countries. What’s in it for the U.S.? Passage of this bill may provide a vehicle for the Senate to attach a renewal of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. The Obama administration has made approval of the TAA a precondition for submitting the three pending free trade agreements to Congress for approval. Even so, with the jammed schedule Congress may not get to passing the TAA or the free trade agreements until later this year.

Facing likely reductions or even elimination of direct farm program payments, the National Cotton Council (NCC) is proposing changes to the structure of the safety net for cotton producers. The NCC plan, called the Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX) would by an addition revenue-based crop insurance program that would operate on top of current crop insurance programs to provide support when cotton producers experience a shallow drop in revenue. In addition, the NCC is proposing a modified marketing loan program that would be adjusted to meet the requirements of the Brazil WTO case.

Many more “snapping up” food stamps. The food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has increased dramatically in recent years due to the downturn in the economy. SNAP benefits totaled more than $64 billion in fiscal 2010, double the level paid out in 2006 Almost 46 million people received SNAP benefits in May 2011.