By Tim Leeds
A problem with recent precipitation in north-central Montana is it may be too late to help ag producers feed cattle now, and may also prevent grazing on land in the Conservation Reserve Program.
Jesse Aber of Gov. Judy Martz's Drought Task Force said Friday that recent precipitation could factor in enough moisture that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency will be unable to grant requests to graze or hay CRP land. The FSA's hands are tied by regulations that the amount of precipitation for the last four months in an area is part of the decision, he said.
The moisture came in the fourth year of drought conditions. The group that rates drought conditions in the United States gave north-central Montana its most severe rating exceptional drought. The area is the first in the country to receive an exceptional drought rating this year.
But the moisture won't produce growth quickly enough to save producers who have no forage on their pasture and are running out of hay to feed their cattle, he said.
"It's ironic. They're looking at four months of low moisture where if they looked at six months or 12 months or 24 months we would probably qualify hands down," Aber said.
Many Montanans have liquidated at least some of their herds already. About 200,000 extra cattle were sold last year because of the difficulty maintaining herds, Aber said. Now, most ranchers that have cattle only keep their best breeding stock, and if they don't get help within the next couple of weeks, those might have to be sold too, Aber said.
"You're the steward of an operation that goes back four generations, and just by a stroke of bad luck things go bad on your watch," he said.
Martz and others have petitioned Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman to expedite the process of allowing CRP grazing. FSA staff said Thursday that they are processing requests, and a decision could be made as early as this week.
Alisa Harrison, Veneman's spokeswoman, said today that Veneman is actively looking into the need for CRP grazing.
The problems aren't limited to cattle grazing.
Things aren't much better for farmers, Aber said, especially those with winter wheat. Many areas lost topsoil because of the lack of soil moisture, precipitation and high winds.
Aber said he knows of farmers who had the wind blow the topsoil off winter wheat leaving the seed exposed. With moisture in the last few weeks, some farmers hauled the soil back and spread it over the seed, only to have the wind blow it off again.
Veneman said Wednesday that the farm bill recently signed by President Bush should be enough to care for ag producers. Disaster assistance, she said, isn't needed. The bill provides price guarantees and payments and loans if rates fall below a certain level.
Harrison said Veneman was reiterating what President Bush said when he signed the farm bill into law. The president and Veneman were saying the bill is generous enough that disaster aid shouldn't be needed this year, Harrison said.
Montana's congressional delegation disagrees.
Sen. Max Baucus sent a letter to Veneman Thursday telling her so.
"I am writing to express my deep disappointment with your comments regarding emergency agricultural assistance," Democrat Baucus said in the letter. "I urge you to reconsider your position."
Sen. Conrad Burns sent a letter to the president Wednesday, the same day Veneman made her comments. The farm bill does not solve the problems faced by ag producers during a drought, Republican Burns wrote to Bush.
Erik Iverson, Rep. Denny Rehberg's spokesman, said Rehberg thinks Veneman's comments were taken out of context. Republican Rehberg feels Veneman meant disaster aid won't be needed in the future, Iverson said, not that she opposes relief for this year.
Rehberg is building a bipartisan coalition in the House to support and pass disaster relief, and to work with the rest of Montana's delegation, Iverson said. A letter signed by 10 U.S. representatives, as of Friday, will be sent to Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Part of Rehberg's effort is to build support at the local level. He is working with farm and ranch organizations to do so. The more people who contact Congress and the White House, the better, he said.
"We're trying to get floods of letters and phone calls," he said.
All three of the delegation are working to pass disaster relief. Baucus has been trying to attach relief to bills for months, and had $2.4 billion in aid he attached to the farm bill stripped out during conference. Rehberg and Burns have also been campaigning to get aid to producers.
Burns is working in the Senate to attach aid to a bill on the floor, while Baucus is working with ag committee chair Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to get disaster aid passed out of that committee. Baucus spokesman Bill Lombardi said Baucus will support whichever vehicle will get aid to ag producers the fastest.
The Department of Agriculture is working with Congress to determine whether aid for last year's losses is needed, Harrison said. Veneman is not in a position to say whether Bush would veto a disaster aid package this year.
But the farm bill won't be enough, Aber said. Many banks are recalling loans they have extended to farmers to help them through tough times over the last decade, he said.
"Low interest loans won't do most producers much good right now. They don't want to borrow more money."