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Drought widespread and devastating

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

As urbanites and suburbanites along the Front Range went from being inconvenienced by lawn watering bans to focusing on the spread of mountain wildfires, area farmers and ranchers watched as spring-planted crops and pastures withered and turned brown.

“While the threat of mountain wildfires to humans is significant, all attention is focused there rather than on the devastation of drought to producers and rural communities,” said RMFU President John Stencel. “Most Coloradoans are unaware that there also have been at least six prairie fires.”

In many cases irrigated farmers are being required to irrigate crops that have no chance of maturing, rather than using limited irrigation water to irrigate hay or pasture, in order to reap some fruit from their labors. Farmers with crop insurance who follow the more logical course of action—irrigating hay or pasture—could be unable to collect on their crop insurance policies.

Livestock producers are finding that the hay or pasture that normally lasts them well into the fall is already gone. Due to fire danger, no drinking water for their animals, and limited forage, very few producers who have long relied on public land grazing are being issued grazing permits. With hay reaching $200 per ton, few can afford to feed their cattle and sheep herds. Commercial auctions report working until midnight on sale days to move all the animals coming into their facilities. Initially, ranchers made choices to aggressively cull breeding animals and not to hold back as many replacements. Now, entire herds and flocks are being sold—some of them foundation herds developed over many decades.

Conditions in most of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico are classified as “extreme.” Montana, which has received some welcome spring snows and summer rains to lessen the severity of its drought, is experiencing its third, and in some cases, its fourth year of drought. Also affected by the drought are west Texas, the Oklahoma Panhandle and Arizona.

Most farmers and ranchers do not recall ever seeing conditions so dry and can only compare it to what they have heard about the dust bowl days. For some areas throughout RMFU’s tri-state region, 2002 is actually the third year of drought.

Six of it eight Wyoming rivers surveyed show streamflows at all-time lows. Officials have declared this year’s conditions the worst drought in history. Without snowpacks this winter of at least 140 percent of normal, Wyoming expects drought conditions to continue into 2003. There is very little pasture and hay throughout the state, and a very small wheat and barley crop is expected.

“Beatles also have plagued our crop producers, and many say that extreme dryness invites infestations of grasshoppers. Let’s hope that is not the case!” said Pine Bluffs wheat producer Scott Zimmerman.

New Mexico is seeing a lot of producers selling off their (irrigation) water rights and even selling well water because the drought has made it more profitable to sell water than to take a chance on raising crops in a very iffy year.

According to Akron wheat farmer Monty Niebur, some counties in eastern Colorado received less than 1 inch of rain from Oct. 1, 2001 until this spring. He also reports that one in 10 irrigation wells needs to be re-drilled due to the dry conditions.

Financial devastation severe

“Officials are estimating 2002 Colorado wheat yields, which have an annual average of 104 million bushels, in the 40 million bushel range, yet I’d be surprised to see this year’s harvest over 25-30 million bushels,” Niebur said.

Adding insult to injury, some irrigated crop farmers are having trouble collecting on their crop insurance because drought is not in the same category as losses by other natural means (i.e. hail, flooding, etc.)

Even producers who have no problem collecting on their insurance policies, are fat cats by no means. The highest level of coverage will only cover a producer’s out-of-pocket costs. He is not reimbursed for his labor or any profit he might have made raising a crop. And, because he has no crop, he is not eligible for federal farm programs that make up the difference between the market price and the county target price.

The drought follows already disastrous crop prices over the last several years. The cattle market was already dropping. The selling off of breeding herds is flooding the market, further weakening the U.S. cattle market. Even if cattle prices rebound, producers who have sold off their herds will have to spend several years re-building.

Another, long-term negative impact anticipated is soil erosion and loss of topsoil. “Producers are being caught between a rock and a hard spot,” Niebur said. “If they try to conserve water by getting rid of weeds, they make the soil more vulnerable to blowing. I don’t know of any producer in my area who will be able to comply with his conservation plan.”

“I’m concerned about the impact of this drought on entire rural communities, which depend so heavily on agriculture,” Stencel said. “If producers were coming off of consecutive years of $6 wheat and $90 cattle, they would have some reserves to fall back on, but in truth, few agricultural commodities have sold much beyond the cost of production in recent years. We really need help in the form on direct disaster assistance.”

Disaster assistance sought, rural input needed

An allocation for disaster assistance for 2001 in the amount of just under $2.5 billion was originally included in the 2002 farm bill. However, it was removed in conference committee. A second attempt to allocate disaster assistance was made June 6, when it was attached to a defense bill. It also failed. Proponents of disaster assistance, including Montana Senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns, have pledged to attach it to any legislation they can.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., June 18, called on the Bush administration to allow at least $4 billion in disaster aid to be allocated for crop and livestock losses in 2001 and 2002. Daschle predicted that without disaster assistance, there would be “the loss of hundreds if not more farmers and ranchers.”

However, the White House is staunchly opposed to disaster allocations unless they are funded from money already earmarked for farm programs under the 2002 farm bill.

“The administration’s position has been that the farm bill was an increase in spending on farm programs and that this should be adequate,” Stencel said. “Farmers with a crop will appreciate the increase in loan rates and deficiency payments, but without a crop, producers will not be able to take advantage of these programs.”

In addition, Stencel points out that the 2002 farm bill offers no counter-cyclical offsets for livestock producers.

RMFU is pushing very hard, both through its own congressional delegations as well as through National Farmers Union’s legislative office in Washington, D.C., for passage of disaster assistance. A trip to the nation’s capitol to visit pivotal members of Congress is being organized for July 23-25. Farmers Union has invited the participation of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Association of Wheat Growers. One representative from the state organizations of each of the four groups is being invited to attend. These and all other major agriculture organizations support passage of disaster aid.

RMFU members should get involved in this very important legislative issue by contacting their two senators and their member of Congress and urging them to support disaster assistance for agricultural producers hit by drought and other natural disasters. See inset for details on how to do this.

Conservation waivers and other help

In addition, RMFU will work with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to obtain leeway for producers’ conservation programs in the coming year.

“The lack of moisture is making it difficult for producers to avoid erosion, and they should not risk losing the right to participate in future farm programs because of this,” Zimmerman said. “In addition, the lower water levels could cause the concentration of contaminants to be higher in water supplies. We would not want to see the agricultural community punished for either of these scenarios—neither one of which they can control.”

RMFU will seek government assistance in repairing water storage facilities. Some irrigation water was lost this year due to ill repair of reservoirs and other water storage facilities.

Another area of need for RMFU members may be financial and emotional counseling for farm families facing tough decisions as a result of the drought and low farm prices.

RMFU also will support two national legislative issues. The first is for the creation of a National Drought Council within the Federal Emergency Management Agency. To this point, drought has been treated as a less disastrous disaster and not dealt with as completely or as aggressively. It is hoped this council will put drought at the same level of importance as hurricanes and floods.

A second positive bill for agricultural producers experiencing disaster is an Internal Revenue tax code change that would give producers who are forced to sell livestock additional time to reinvest sales proceeds before they have to pay capital gains tax on the money earned. The proposed change would enable a producer to wait until a drought is over before having to reinvest.

Loan and other programs currently available

Some disaster assistance programs exist without further allocations by Congress. All Colorado counties, as well as most Wyoming and New Mexico counties have been declared disaster areas, making them eligible to request grazing and/or haying on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres. The majority of counties in RMFU’s tri-state region have been approved for grazing on CRP land. Producers wishing to graze CRP land must contact their county FSA office. Twenty-five percent of a producer’s CPR payment will be withheld to compensate for the grazed land. RMFU also is suggesting to county FSA technical committees that producers be given the option to hay their CRP acres if they so choose.

Emergency Loan Assistance is available to qualifying producers in counties that have been declared disaster areas. This program provides up to $500,000 at a 3.75 percent interest rate to producers with collateral. Another program, the Emergency Conservation Program, is a cost-sharing program that helps rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disaster. In the case of drought, monies can be used to provide emergency water for livestock, orchards and vineyards.

Producers also are reminded that FSA loans provide them with a number of options, including restructuring of debt and, sometimes, reduction in interest rates. FSA or other lending institution loan officers should be able to advise producers of their best course of action.

Long-term lessons?

Although RMFU will focus its immediate efforts on immediate problems, long-terms solutions to drought must be addressed.

Perhaps, monies need to be allocated to research farming methods and seed varieties that are resistant to extreme drought situations. This would be important both so that producers have a crop in low-moisture years, as well as to reduce erosion of topsoil during drought.

RMFU will advocate for better crop insurance and/or a disaster safety net. The best insurance a farmer can buy only reimburses his input costs. And, without a crop, he/she is not eligible for per-bushel payments.

In Colorado and perhaps in other high-growth areas, the feasibility of continued rapid growth needs to be explored and public policy formulated to prioritize water allocations.

RMFU Wants You . . .

to contact your elected officials
and ask them to support disaster assistance.

A simple message via phone, fax or e-mail is quick and highly effective. In your communication:
• introduce yourself and your operation,
• state your desire to have the senator or representative support disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers, and,
• say why it is important to you and your community.

Try to make your point in a brief but memorable way. Every American is represented by two senators and one (district) representative. Contact all three of them.

1) To call or fax:
To call your members of Congress, dial the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121. Ask for your member by name, or if you don’t know his/her name, tell the operator your ZIP Code to be connected to the member’s office. Those preferring to communicate by fax can then ask the receptionist for the office fax number.

2) To e-mail:
Another option is to e-mail your members of Congress. To do this, log on to the National Farmers Union web site at www.nfu.org and click on the Action Alert button. Typing your ZIP Code enables you to access all the information on your senators and representative. This feature on the web site allows you to send e-mail directly to your members of Congress and to President George Bush. It even has a sample letter.