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North-central Montanas drought status worsens


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The federal government has recognized what north-central Montana residents have known for some time the area is in severe, possibly record, drought conditions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has set the drought conditions in the Havre area to D4 the highest level possible.

"It doesn't get any worse than that," Steve Snezek, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, said today.

Ohs was at a meeting of the governor's drought advisory task force, which he chairs, this morning and could not be reached for comment.

The area in north-central Montana is not only the worst in the state for drought conditions, Snezek said, it appears to the worst in the nation.

Many communities in the area, including Havre and the Hill County Water District, have put water restrictions in place.

The governor's office is continuing to ask Montana's congressional delegation and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman to provide disaster relief and to open land in the Conservation Reserve Program for grazing and haying, Snezek said.

Veneman said Wednesday that she doesn't think disaster aid is needed now that the farm bill has been signed into law by President Bush. The bill provides price guarantees, or loan rates, for some crops and has a target-price program to provide payments when crop prices are below certain levels.

Veneman said payments totaling $1.5 billion should reach grain and cotton farmers this fall. Those checks will supplement $4 billion in fixed annual payments that were provided earlier this year under the 1996 law.

"Hopefully we're not going to get additional supplemental spending with this farm bill," she said.

J.P. Donoven, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, said Burns disagrees and will continue to fight for disaster aid.

"Passage of the farm bill by no means solves the problems experienced by most farmers and ranchers facing severe drought conditions," Burns, R-Mont., said in a letter Wednesday to the White House.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also will continue to fight for disaster aid, Baucus spokesman Bill Lombardi said today. Baucus is also joining Sen. Pete Dominici, R-N.M., in introducing a bill to increase drought preparedness in the nation.

Richard Jackson, who farms and ranches north of Rudyard, said he hopes CRP is opened for grazing soon.

"If I could have (cattle) out there right now it would make a big difference," he said.

The cattle have little to no grazing available on the pastures, Jackson said, so he is still feeding them hay. Since he could raise very little hay last year because of the drought, he has to buy hay to feed the cattle, and it's very expensive, he said.

Mike Zook, director of the Farm Service Agency office in Hill County, said opening CRP is about all the Department of Agriculture can do right now. The department has already declared the area a disaster, providing some tax relief and increasing the availability and amount of emergency loans.

Opening CRP would help, Zook said, but added that many ag producers have told him it might not help much because very little grass has grown.

"They said the value isn't there," he said.

Jackson agreed that there isn't much forage on the CRP land, but every little bit would help. Recent precipitation, including the heavy snow last week, has brought some new growth, he said. But that has to be balanced against the loss of CRP payments, he added. He loses $10 an acre in payments when he grazes or hays CRP land, he said.

Dan Stuart of the Farm Service Agency in Washington, D.C., said the agency is processing applications for CRP grazing and haying in Montana, and could make a decision as early as next week.

Shirley Jackson, Richard Jackson's wife, said CRP grazing might not help many ag producers, because they have already sold their cattle.

"We're holding on for dear life," she said.


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