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Bi-partisan concern over drought

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This summer is not the first time farmers have faced nature's brutality, but the severity of this season is taking a toll on crops and livestock.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday issued a report on food inflation, which left unchanged an expected 2.5 – 3.5 percent increase in food prices for 2012. For 2013, however, experts predicted a 3 - 4 percent increase.

The USDA's Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service Undersecretary Michael Scuse visited traveled the fields of Indiana last week to collect a first-hand report of drought damage. Marion County was one of 14 new counties added to the list of federally declared disaster areas — the total now stands at 50.

"Unfortunately it's part of the life of a producer," he said. "Adversity is something you have to live with from time to time; we'll come out of this."

Scuse visited the Kelsay family farm, a multi-generational dairy operation in Johnson County, on July 19. Last Wednesday he also stopped in on Hoosier farms in Allen and White counties after touring farms in Michigan.

He reported witnessing whole fields without enough rain to germinate corn crops. Without adequate pollination, corn plants can't produce enough kernels to fill out on their ears.

For city people seeing relatively green corn stalks in Indiana fields, be aware that the plant's height, ears and kernel count are all affected by the high heat and lack of rain.

For soybeans, said Scuse, there's hope, but it should be waist-high by now.

The federal government has declared 1,297 counties disaster areas.

For dairy and livestock producers, it's not just the price of hay and feed, but an availability issue — some areas won't have adequate supplies, Scuse said.

Livestock liquidations may lead to a short-term drop in meat prices, but an increase in the long term as supplies tighten, he added.

Commercial products that use corn and wheat may not be as sensitive to commodity prices, as other costs such as packaging and marketing represent a much larger portion of the ticket price. Still, as perspective supplies tighten, the Chicago Board of Trade this week registered record highs for both corn and soybean futures.

Dairyman Merrill Kelsay, a long-time advocate for Indiana farmers, and his sons Joe, the director of Indiana's state department of agriculture, and Russ, the farm manager, joined the undersecretary.

Though Scuse and the Kelsays represented different political interests, they emphasized their wish that politicians in Washington act quickly to aid the country's agriculturalists.

"We are calling on Congress to pass a Farm Bill as soon as they can," Scuse said.

Joe Kelsay echoed that theme.

"This is not political," Kelsay said. "We have producers that need assistance ... (we must) set aside differences and get us a Farm Bill as soon as possible."

The bill, a five-year, $969 billion piece of legislation based on the version passed by the U.S. Senate this year (more than 80 percent of which will support food stamps, according to the nonprofit commodity group Farm Policy Facts) has yet to reconciled with a more-conservative House version of the bill.

"The Senate passed a $969 billion farm bill in June by a 64-35 vote, while the House Agriculture Committee passed its $957 billion bill by a 35-11 vote this month," according to a story by Erik Wasson of The Hill.

"Fiscal conservatives want deeper cuts to farm subsidies and nutrition programs, while liberal lawmakers are against the $16.5 billion in food stamp cuts in the bill."

Even as the weather crushes crops and politicians grapple over policy, Indiana is demonstrating practical leadership in the face of adversity. The state leads the nation in usage of cover crops, planted not for harvest but to fix nutrients, improve soil organic content and increase the soil's natural ability to hold moisture.

Indiana farmers lead the nation in the total acreage of planted cover crops, such as cereal rye, peas and radishes, said Indiana State Conservationist Jane Hardisty, who also attended the meeting at the Kelsay farm.

"We've installed more cover crops than all other states combined," she said.

She added the local division of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service stands ready to offer technical outreach to farmers interested in a whole-systems approach to their operations that couples an emphasis on preserving water quality and water quantity.

She said , as well.

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