WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expediting a farm bill provision that provides relief to South Dakota ranchers devastated by an early October blizzard. The agency is responding with almost unprecedented speed after fierce lobbying and pressure from the congressional delegations in both Dakotas.
USDA said Friday it would begin accepting applications in mid-April for a livestock disaster program that was reauthorized in a comprehensive, five-year farm bill passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last week.
Ranchers will be able to sign up for livestock disaster programs for losses that were incurred in 2012 through 2014. That means South Dakota ranchers who lost an estimated 43,000 cattle and other livestock in the Oct. 4-5 blizzard can begin seeking relief within 60 days of the new farm bill becoming law.
Under the last farm bill, enacted in 2008, it took more than a year to re-establish the program and begin taking applications. This time around, Dakotas lawmakers have made clear that would be unacceptable.
"Not only will the USDA's swift action impact those families who lost cattle in 2012 and 2013, but every consumer will benefit from the reliable food supply that is protected through the Livestock Disaster Assistance Programs," Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. said in a statement.
Noem, along with Sens. John Thune, R-S.D. and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., pressed USDA to move quickly.
The months since the ferocious, early October blizzard have been a bleak period for many South Dakota ranchers. Bob Fortune, who ranches outside Belvidere, South Dakota and serves as the president of the state's Stockgrowers Association, said many ranchers hurt by the storm have "pretty much been treading water, just waiting."
"I'm sure banks have been holding on, hoping this was coming," he said.
Fortune's group worked with the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association and the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association to establish the Rancher Relief Fund. The goal was to help ranchers bridge the time between the blizzard and when relief from the federal government might arrive.
"It never amounted to much for one individual except for guys who lost big numbers of cattle," Fortune said. "It definitely wasn't making them whole."
Emergency relief from USDA should help ranchers to make something closer to a full recovery, he said. And the state's congressional delegation responded with happiness that USDA had heeded their calls for expediting the program.
Johnson said it was especially good for those ranchers hit by the October storm.
"I am glad USDA is acting on my request to quickly implement these programs to get much needed help out the door to our producers," he said.
Nicholson reported from Bismarck, North Dakota