Heitkamp, panel talk drought with ranchers on the ground
More than 100 people filled Bowman’s Auction Market to hear from a panel of state agriculture agencies—and U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND-D)—about the ongoing drought crisis in North Dakota.
By COLE BENZ
Sitting in on the discussion along with Heitkamp was North Dakota Farm Service Agency Director Brad Olson, NDSU Extension agent with the Dickinson Research Center Ryan Buetow, and Eric Bashore with U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency.
The first part of the nearly two-hour program was an overview by Olson of some programs that may help in this dire situation, including emergency use of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Livestock Forage Program, Emergency Livestock Assistance Program, Livestock Indemnity Program, and Emergency Conservation Program. He also went over the Emergency Disaster Declaration, and how that process unfolds should the Secretary of Agriculture authorize that program.
Heitkamp opened up her portion of the program by introducing assistance that is coming from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, according to Heitkamp and a press release from her offices, is going to announce the notice that is going to allow producers to defer paying capital gains tax for a two-year period on the sale of cattle due to the ongoing sever drought.
The drought has forced ranchers to pay exceptionally high prices for hay from outside the state, while at the same time forced them to sell cattle at much lower prices than past averages.
Hay hauling was one of the first topics Heitkamp was questioned on when the floor was opened up to the public. It was asked if they might be able to expect federal assistance for the cost of having to bring in the feed for their cattle.
The senator was also asked who decides the Aug. 1 date for the release of CRP. In the past, the date was July 15, but it was extended two weeks. The crowd wanted to know why.
“Farmers and ranchers ask me this all the time,” she said. “I would tell you, there’s a lot of people in congress who like ducks more than farmers and ranchers, and that’s got to end.”
But less than a week after Heitkamp’s visit to Bowman, USDA announced that they have released the CRP for haying. About a week prior to her Bowman visit, CRP had been released for grazing only.
Heitkamp admittedly said that the release of CRP wouldn’t solve the big problem, but that it would be nice to give ranchers all the assistance they can get.
Prior to USDA’s announcement, Heitkamp seemed to be agitated at the slow pace of the federal government to get ranchers answers.
But the department must have really heeded Heitkamp’s, and the rest of North Dakota’s congressional delegation’s phone calls, because the answers started to come quicker than the senator had anticipated. She thought it would be a matter of months, and not weeks.
Another question from the crowd was directed towards Bashore, in regards to rainfall insurance. A producer in the crowd said he had carried it since its inception, but has essentially been short-changed by the widespread distance between rain collection centers, which Bashore agreed was a hard thing to deal with.
“That’s a frequent concern we have,” Bashore said. “That’s one limitation with the program, looking at your individual grid. The nearest collection point that’s used for the program may be 50 miles away; it may be five miles away.”
Heitkamp grouped that question with the rest of the systems that are suppose to help, yet in the end tend to me more convoluted. She said that people in charge have these ‘rule’ books, and only follow them to a, ’T’ without talking about it with common sense—like the late date for CRP release.
The senator tried to empathize with the ranching community, telling them that they have really been left behind (so to speak) when it comes to safety nets from the federal government.
“I think we all can agree, if you look at the farm program, it’s livestock that really has gotten the short end of the stick for a lot of years,” she said. “You don’t ask for a lot, but when times are tough you’ve got to get some help, to stay in the business.”
Heitkamp said she comes to these forums to inform the people about the current provisions for relief in hard times; and for her to learn which parts of the programs aren’t working, so she can bring the concerns back with her when she talks with USDA.
“I know it’s time out of your day, I know you’re all busy,” Heitkamp said. “But this is always so valuable to me, to hear direct concerns and complaints.”
She encouraged everyone in attendance to get on her website and send her their concerns, even if some aren’t so nice.
“That’s helpful to me, because then when I argue with USDA I’ve got the comments,” Heitkamp said. “So don’t feel like you’re going to hurt my feelings if you wail on this stuff on my webpage.”
Ted Tescher—a Medora-area rancher of more than four decades—said this forum was helpful. It explained some things, and he appreciated the time she gave coming to talk.
“I think she’s got a big ear to listen to us, which is the biggest help,” Tescher said. “I know she’s a politician, but she did listen. I thought it was a great turnout. She let me express my opinion, which is worth a lot.”
Heitkamp said during the forum that the biggest frustration she has is that she feels a sense of urgency, and the ranchers and their families aren’t getting answers quick enough, and she’s working to change that.
“I can’t guarantee…but this is why I’m out here,” Heitkamp said. “[To] find out what it is that you need, and if there is a way that we can have you get this assistance in the next couple of months here.”