WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government promised nearly $800 million in aid Tuesday to ranchers and farmers hit by a near-record drought.
The aid was announced by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns during a visit to South Dakota, one of the states with a severe rainfall shortage and extreme heat.
Worsening drought and record high temperatures are devastating cattle ranches and farms that grow cotton, wheat, sorghum, peanuts and other crops. Johanns saw the damage firsthand Tuesday on a South Dakota ranch.
``As I walked past where grass should be high and growing and cattle grazing, I saw only dirt,'' Johanns told reporters by telephone. ``In western Plains states, livestock producers are making very touch choices because of lack of green pastures.''
The secretary said 64 percent of the nation's beef cows and breeding stock are in drought-stricken areas where many ranchers are being forced to cull their herds.
Johanns outlined the $780 million in drought aid:
_$50 million in block grants for hard-hit states.
_$18 million from emergency conservation funds.
_$11 million from an unused land conservation program.
_The department would accelerate $700 million in planned payments to cotton, grain, sorghum and peanut farmers.
The aid is on top of $4 billion in crop insurance the government expects to pay out this year.
The administration has resisted a $4 billion drought-aid plan in Congress because it would go only to those who already get government subsidies, about four in 10 farmers. House leaders and President Bush have opposed the aid, but senators in June added the aid to a farm spending bill.
The new drought aid wasn't enough to satisfy lawmakers who want more. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said the aid amounts to 2 percent of the Senate proposal.
``This plan is all hat and no cattle,'' said Johnson, who was in South Dakota with Johanns. ``While I appreciate that the White House finally recognizes the drought as a disaster, this plan leaves producers empty-handed.''
Drought has hit farmers in western Corn Belt states _ Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota _ particularly hard.
Last month was the hottest July since the Dust Bowl in 1936. Dryness also approached records in many parts of the country, which saw the driest conditions from May through June since 1988.