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May 02, 2011   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
334 613-4212
May 02, 2011

Alabama agriculture leaders visit with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a visit to tornado-ravaged Pratt City by members of the president's cabinet. From left are Commissioner of Agriculture John McMillan, Vilsack, Federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan and Alabama Cattlemen's Association Executive Vice President Billy Powell.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., May 1 -- As Alabama began to dig out from deadly tornadoes that ripped through the Southeast last week, the state's agricultural leaders met with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about programs to help farmers whose lives and livelihoods were impacted by the storms.

Vilsack joined Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills on a tour of tornado-ravaged Pratt City near Birmingham Sunday.

The former Iowa governor outlined a number of programs that are available to assist farmers with debris removal, fence repair and livestock and crop losses. He also advised state officials about the procedures they must follow to qualify for federal aid.

"Right now, I want to make sure I get the folks here connected -- to make sure we get things done," Vilsack said.

He also reassured state agriculture leaders, "If there's a stumbling block, if there's a hitch -- something that's not getting done -- you have my number."

Alabama Farmers Federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan gave the USDA chief an overview of the agricultural damage in Alabama. In addition to hundreds of poultry houses that were destroyed or damaged by tornadoes, farmers also have been impacted by miles of downed fence, thousands of acres of flattened forest, and tons of debris that littered their fields. Farmers in north Alabama also have burned hundreds of gallons of fuel to keep generators running during the prolonged power outage.

Alabama farm leaders visited with Vilsack for more than an hour as he and fellow cabinet members toured the northwest Birmingham community. Besides Pinyan, the group included Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries John McMillan, Alabama Cattlemen's Association Executive Vice President Billy Powell, Farm Service Agency State Executive Director Daniel Robinson, USDA Rural Development State Director Ronnie Davis and Natural Resources Conservation Service State Conservationist Bill Puckett.

"This is going to be a time when our faith, ingenuity and resolve are going to be tested," said McMillan. "I flew over north Alabama for four and a half hours (Saturday), and we haven't even started talking about the rural devastation. It's going to take a whole lot of resolve and dedication to get through this."

Within hours after last week's storms, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), located in the basement of the Department's headquarters in Montgomery. EOC staffers continue to receive calls about damage to farms, issue burial permits for poultry growers and gather information regarding USDA disaster programs.

Preliminary damage reports indicate that poultry losses were in the millions with more than 200 poultry houses destroyed and another 514 damaged. As of Monday afternoon, 38 cows and 19 horses had been reported dead. Department officials expect these numbers to rise as they learn more about the extent of the destruction.

Vilsack noted that producers who've suffered poultry and livestock losses may be eligible for assistance through the Livestock Indemnity Program. In addition, the Emergency Conservation Program provides cost-share assistance for fence repair and debris removal; and some losses may be covered by crop insurance or the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. The presidential disaster declaration also makes farmers eligible for emergency loans through USDA, and Vilsack said he would work with state officials to secure a secretarial disaster declaration, which will trigger the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program (SURE).

Members of Alabama's congressional delegation have pledged to do everything possible to help both urban and rural residents. On hand for Vilsack's visit were U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and U.S. Reps. Spencer Bachus, R-Birmingham, and Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham.

"There are a wide variety of programs that can be beneficial to people who have suffered loss. Our staff will be facilitating in that, and making sure every agency is doing its part and not dropping the ball," said Sessions, who described the devastation as the most vicious he's ever seen.

The senator was visibly moved as he visited with residents and volunteers who sifted through the rubble Sunday, hoping to find cherished possessions.

"Alabama people are strong," he declared. "These people have the kind of faith and spirit that's inspiring. The character of Alabama people is shining through."

Alabama agricultural leaders who met with Vilsack are working to assess farm losses, draft funding requests and identify other sources of assistance. Meanwhile, Vilsack pledged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would work with Alabama farmers to recover from these storms.

"The people of Alabama will arise from this rubble stronger and better prepared for the future, and we will be there with them at USDA," he said.

Farmers may visit their local FSA office to learn more about disaster programs. For assistance regarding damage at animal operations resulting in animal mortality, call the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries EOC at 334-240-7278.

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