Regional News

WASHINGTON — If the drought's making life miserable, just call in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

OK, the folks who make sure your airplane lands safely might not seem like the experts on drought issues. But they have a role.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the government is seeking creative ways for various parts of the government to pitch in during the crisis.

Vilsack will be in Omaha on Tuesday for the first of four regional drought workshops.

In an interview with The World-Herald, the secretary compared the workshops to public meetings the Federal Emergency Management Agency typically holds after a community has been struck by a tornado or hurricane.

“This drought obviously impacts virtually every state in the country,” Vilsack said.

The Omaha meeting represents an opportunity for local, state and federal officials to consider immediate and longer term needs arising from the drought.

For example, livestock producers' culling of herds now might affect processing plants down the road.

In some ways, the Agriculture Department's response has been hampered by the lack of a new farm bill, Vilsack said.

He noted that already-expired disaster assistance programs have not been renewed and that some dairy programs ran out of money Oct. 1.

“We're just unable to provide through USDA the kind of cash assistance that has been part of the safety net for some time,” he said. “I know that's very, very frustrating to people.”

But the department is looking for other ways to help.

For example, last month it opened up Conservation Reserve Program acres to emergency haying and grazing and has encouraged crop insurance companies to provide farmers with more flexibility to respond to the situation.

And they're working with other parts of the government, from the Interior Department to the Small Business Administration.

Then there's the transportation guys.

The hardest-hit areas of the country get exemptions from federal regulations on driving hours, allowing more commercial drivers on the road to help deliver emergency assistance.

There also is new authority for states to issue special permits for overweight vehicles and loads.

Vilsack said if truckers can haul more grain in a single load, that cuts down on farmers' transportation costs at a time when their crop yields, and therefore bottom lines, are hurting.

Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, is helping lead the drought response as head of President Barack Obama's Rural Council.

The Omaha drought workshop will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesday in the Legislative Chambers at the City-County Building, 1819 Farnam St.

After Omaha, the other three workshops will be in Colorado, Ohio and Arkansas.

“I think it will again indicate to people that we are doing everything we can — short of Congress doing its job, getting a farm bill done,” Vilsack said.

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