The USDA this week announced several new actions to provide relief to drought-stricken farmers and ranchers, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke with AgriTalk Radio’s Mike Adams on Wednesday to outline the administration’s efforts.

On Tuesday, President Obama convened the White House Rural Council, which Vilsack chairs, to review Executive Branch actions and consider policy initiatives related to the drought. Following that meeting, the White House and USDA announced the new measures.

Vilsack says the President has been clear in instructing him and the rest of the Rural Council to continue looking for ways to provide help and assistance, and he expects to announce more initiatives as opportunities arise. He stresses, however, that while the Executive Branch can provide some relief, it is critical for the House of Representatives to return from recess in September and complete work on the 2012 farm bill before September 30.

The first measures announced this week deal with assistance in feed, forage and water. In addition to previous measures to reduce the reduction in payments for Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres used for emergency haying and grazing, USDA is working with the Department of the Interior to provide flexibility in grazing Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands. Programs include refunds to lessees unable to use their allotments for grazing because of drought or fires, greater flexibility in grazing schedules and management and expanded access to additional federal lands.

Vilsack also announced the availability of $30 million in new relief funds administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to assist in moving water to livestock in need, providing emergency forage for livestock, and rehabilitating lands severely impacted by the drought.

The next measures Vilsack discussed help provide access to credit for farmers and ranchers in drought areas.  The National Credit Union Administration will announce that more than 1,000 credit unions are eligible for a low-income designation, which permits unlimited lending to small business owners including farmers. Essentially, Vilsack says, this means eligible credit unions will not have to worry about statutory caps on lending which will make resources and credit available in addition to what the Small Business Administration and the Farm Service Agency can make available.

As of August 1, 2012, the sixteen major providers of U.S. crop insurance have all agreed to forego interest charges on unpaid premiums through November. Vilsack expressed his appreciation for the grace period and says the crop insurance system should be prepared for significant number of claims and will be able to meet the financial requirements. “It’s a good thing we’ve got crop insurance,” he says, noting that at the time of the severe drought in 1988, only 25 percent of farmers had crop insurance, while today 85 percent have insured their crops. He acknowleges, though, that livestock producers are especially suffering because they don’t have crop insurance or a disaster program in effect.

Finally, Vilsack says, USDA is working with other federal and state agencies to help lower costs for producers. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation is working with state agencies to temporarily loosen restrictions on truck weights and service hours to reduce transportation costs during the harvest season.

Also in the area of transportation, Vilsack says the Army Corps of Engineers is monitoring stream flows in key waterways to preserve navigation and prevent the drought from disrupting barge transit for ag commodities following harvest.

Again though, Vilsack stresses the best thing for agriculture would be for the House and Senate to get together and pass a farm bill before the September 30 deadline.

Listen to the AgriTalk interview with Vilsack.