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Farm Bill restores some payments for counties with federal lands

The Farm Bill moving through Congress includes disaster assistance for ranchers who lost cattle and grazing to drought and wildfire, and millions of dollars in federal payments for counties with federal lands.

Organic farmers would get improved crop insurance and wheat farmers help in selling their crops overseas.

The bill passed the House today and goes to the Senate.

The bill extends for one year Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, which makes up for property taxes the government doesn't pay. Oregon received $13 million last year. Nationwide, the program has distributed $6.3 billion since 1977. The upcoming payments will be a little larger than last year's, about $410 million nationwide, compared to $400 million last year, according to a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

"These payments are a critical lifeline for rural resource-dependent counties that can barely afford to pay for critical government services like public safety, schools and roads," U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said in a statement. "This one-year reauthorization means Congress will once again have to break through partisan gridlock to continue PILT payments past FY2015."

Meanwhile, another federal payments program for timber counties known as Secure Rural Schools is expiring after a one-year extension.

The current bill would restore programs that offer grants to partially cover the value of cattle and grazing lost to disaster. About 225 cattle died in Oregon in the 2012 wildfires, and hundreds of thousands of acres of rangeland burned. No disaster assistance was available at the time because the last Farm Bill had expired and Congress could not agree on a new one.

In Klamath County last summer, drought and newly awarded water rights led to irrigation shutoffs to cattle ranchers in the upper basin, forcing them to find new pasture or sell off their herds. Ranchers estimated they lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

An amendment from Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and others would improve the crop insurance program for organic farmers. It gives $5 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update the prices paid on crop loss claims. Until this year, crop insurance had charged organic farmers a 5 percent premium, and paid them for losses based on the prices for conventionally grown crops.

The bill would also permanently restore authorization for the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to offer stewardship contracts, which are used to reduce wildfire danger, restore forest health, and harvest timber on federal forests. The authorization was due to expire in September. The contracts are widely used on federal forests in Oregon.

— Jeff Barnard, Associated Press