By Ross Markman
Two surveys conducted in the last month by the Hill, Liberty and Chouteau county commissions yielded one overwhelming response: People need help dealing with the four-year drought afflicting north-central Montana.
The first survey, which was mailed to the counties' agricultural producers, sought comment on topics like water, livestock and Conservation Reserve Program grazing and how the shortage of rain is impacting each. The second went to businesses, asking owners how the drought is affecting their day-to-day operations.
The purpose of the polls, according to Liberty County Commissioner Ed Diemert, is to secure a congressional disaster payment for the 2001 crop year. Congress has attached a $2.5 billion amendment to the current farm bill. That money would go to farmers and ranchers nationwide.
Last year, Diemert said, Montana producers received $656 million $3.5 million in Liberty County alone in disaster relief.
"The disaster payment really has an economic boost to our economies. Producers turn around and pay their bills with it," Diemert said. "I don't think anything else can bring that kind of money into our state. If our state didn't get federal subsidies like this, who would want to live here?"
In Hill County, some producers reported they didn't harvest much of their grain last year, and don't have the money to buy new equipment. In addition, many ranchers have sold most or all of their livestock.
"There's a lot of stuff here," Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said, thumbing through the surveys. "And it's depressing."
Cutting back, Bessette said, was the theme expressed by the majority of farmers and ranchers in Hill County. Most blamed the lack of rainfall.
Hill County also surveyed local businesses, most of which said they support disaster relief for farmers and ranchers.
Hill County, Bessette said, polled a variety of businesses, including retail shops, utility companies, restaurants and doctors' offices. One dentist, she said, reported that the drought adversely affected his practice because some of his patients who are producers can no longer afford his services.
Bessette said 99.9 percent of the businesses surveyed in Hill County support disaster relief for farmers and ranchers.
"Immediately, this survey reflects how dry it really is. The snow is nothing. In the last 3 to four years, we're missing one entire year of moisture. That has a drastic effect," Bessette said.
"It's just snowballing," she added. "The only way for it to stop is for it to rain."
But the commissioners and the producers can't control Mother Nature.
They can, however, urge the politicians in Washington, D.C., to approve the disaster payment.
In an effort to do so, Diemert prepared a PowerPoint presentation, which he delivered at a Montana Drought Advisory Committee meeting last month. The presentation was then forwarded to Congress.
"I'm not confident yet that we'll get the disaster payment. I don't take anything for granted," Diemert said. "Right now, we need to have as many people as possible contact the delegation in Washington, D.C., to tell them how much it's needed."
And in Liberty County, Diemert said, it certainly is. Not only have ranchers sold about 60 percent of their cows, he said, not one new piece of farm equipment was purchased last year.
"The drought affects everybody. The No. 1 industry in Montana is agriculture by a pretty good margin," Diemert said. "We're all pretty highly dependent we breathe ag. If it wasn't for agriculture, none of these little communities would be here."
Liberty County producers returned about 10 percent of the surveys distributed, Diemert said, while nearly 40 percent of the 100 businesses the commission polled returned theirs.
In Chouteau County, Commissioner Ken Evans said, there was a 10 percent return from area farmers and ranchers.
"We hand-delivered the poll to businesses in Fort Benton, Big Sandy and Geraldine. We targeted businesses that work with agriculture," Evans said. "They're struggling too, because the farmers aren't spending money in town."
Almost all of the county's 28 ag-related businesses filled out the survey.
"And that's a real good response for Chouteau County," said Evans, who remains optimistic that Congress will allocate the disaster payment.
"We are making so much noise over this thing and we're getting the message out. We just keep pushing every button we can on this thing," he added. "If we don't, it could be a sad situation."