WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration called on Congress Wednesday to assist farmers suffering from the worst drought in 25 years. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said three-fifths of the U.S. land mass and much of the country's corn and soybean crops have been affected by the lack of rain.
Vilsack met with President Barack Obama Wednesday to discuss a response to the disaster. Vilsack said farmers need Congress to pass a five-year $500 billion farm and nutrition bill that is awaiting action in the House of Representatives or at least approve additional disaster programs or provide more flexibility in the availability of credit.
The administration has declared drought disasters in one third of the counties in the country, making them eligible for assistance such as low interest loans.
Vilsack cautioned consumers about potential price gouging in the short-term, saying any increase in retail costs would likely come late this year and next year. In fact, he said, the price of beef, chicken and poultry could well go down in the short term as producers reduce their stocks in the face of higher feed costs.
Vilsack also said that despite the drought, corn farmers are on track to having the third best corn crop in U.S. history.
"If in fact people are beginning see food price increases now, it is not in any way shape or form related to the drought and we should be very careful to keep an eye on that to make sure that people do not take advantage of a very difficult and painful situation," Vilsack said.
The farm bill passed the Senate and cleared the House Agriculture Committee on a bipartisan vote. House Speaker John Boehner has not scheduled a vote on the legislation, but lawmakers representing rural regions were pressing him to accelerate action on the bill.
Reps. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., were collecting signatures from their colleagues urging passage before the August congressional recess.
Asked about the role of prayer in addressing the drought, Vilsack said "If I had a rain prayer or rain dance I could do, I would do it."