Ranchers and Producers Affected by Drought Looking for Options

Ranchers and Producers Affected by Drought Looking For Options

RALPH LOOS
Sheep Industry News

His sheep flock at about one-third the size it was before drought hit California’s Central Valley, Wes Patton is calmly drawing on experience he learned while in Australia.

“Down there, they are always aware that a drought is around the corner,” Patton, whose Orland, Calif. ranch is nearing the third year of a water crisis. “They are prepared for it, and they use it as an opportunity to cull their flocks and to get more efficient.”

Patton’s property is certainly in a drought. He said he received only an inch of rain between April and November of last year. And things have not gotten much better. Patton, who became a full-time sheep producer with his wife, Jane, after he retired as a professor from Chico State University, is holding on, knowing full well that even if regular rains return, it will take at least another year for things to reach “normal.” A 5-inch rain that fell on his pastures in late February did little to ease conditions that have depleted water supplies available for irrigation. Buying water is the only option for ranchers in the region.

It’s an expensive option, of course.

“Water that had been going for $22 or $24 per acre-foot began going for $125 per acre-foot,” Patton explained. “Rumor has it farther south, people are asking for as much as $3,000. It’s really putting farmer against farmer for limited resources.”

Patton said most ranchers and farmers are in the same proverbial grounded boat: feeding sheep gets tougher and tougher as pastures dry up. Patton usually keeps his sheep mainly on irrigated pasture, but has had to start feeding them hay during parts of the year he typically wouldn’t.

“It [the hay] is in short supply and very expensive,” he said.

Federal Programs Offer Relief to Some

Are federal programs stepping in to help? Patton hasn’t gone that route, he said, but programs are available. In fact, a congressional committee met in Fresno in March to address California’s drought crisis. At that meeting, the House Natural Resources Committee was greeted by hundreds of farmworkers holding signs that read, “Warning: No Water! No Food!” while chanting “Water, water!”

Titled “California Water Crisis and its Impacts: The Need for Immediate and Long- Term Solutions,” the meeting began with statements from eight members of Congress, followed by testimony from Central Valley farmers, community leaders and state officials.

Previously, in January, California Gov. Jerry Brown had declared a drought emergency. In February, President Obama visited to see the crisis, delivering millions of dollars in relief aid.

Meanwhile, water officials predict havingto dramatically cut back on the water that farmers receive from a pair of vast systems of canals, reservoirs and dams operated by state and federal authorities. Many Central Valley grain farmers say they will leave fields unplanted.

Several California Republicans in Congress sent a letter to Obama and Brown urging them to use their powers to help farmers and communities hit hardest by the drought.

“Given that communities in Central and Southern California are struggling to meet water needs and farmers are fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of land that feed our state and country,” the letter said, “loss of this water is absolutely unacceptable.”

Looking to the New Farm Bill for Help

When Congress signed off on the new farm bill recently, they paved the way for ranchers and livestock producers to qualify for federal disaster relief for current and retroactive losses caused by the drought. Signup for the program could be offered as soon as April 14.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA will implement Obama’s plans to supplement and expand drought assistance programs for farmers and ranchers affected by severe drought, including a new provision that allows relief from livestock losses retroactive back to 2011.

The additional drought relief is one of the programs approved and made available through new farm bill.

The Agriculture Act of 2014 livestock disaster assistance program includes a livestock indemnity program (LIP) for livestock losses from adverse weather or attacks by federally reintroduced animals; a livestock forage program (LFP) for losses resulting from drought or fire; a program of emergency relief to producers of livestock, honey bees and farm-raised fish not covered by the two previous programs (ELAP); and a tree assistance program for natural disasters.

Vilsack says all of these programs are retroactive to when the livestock disaster provisions ended in 2011. According to the USDA, these programs cover 75 percent of the value of animals lost with a high aggregate limit of $125,000.

Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) joined forces to write a letter to Vilsack asking USDA to expedite signup for the livestock assistance program. The letter expressed urgency at providing relief to ranchers who have been suffering the effect of drought nearly three years without assistance.

“Due to the magnitude of pasture, forage and livestock losses and the urgent need for financial assistance these losses have created, we strongly urge you to place implementation of 2014 farm bill livestock disaster programs as a top priority,” the letter advised the USDA.

In addition to the livestock assistance program authorized with the passage of the new farm law, other drought relief programs have been made available. For California and other states recently part of a disaster declaration, various aid programs are available and are, in part, funded by the following:

$15 million in targeted conservation assistance. This includes $5 million in additional assistance to California and $10 million for drought-impacted areas in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico. The funding is available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) administered by USDA. The assistance helps farmers and ranchers implement conservation practices that conserve scarce water resources, reduce wind erosion on drought-impacted fields and improve livestock access to water.

$5 million in targeted Emergency Watershed Protection. The program will provide assistance to the most drought affected areas of California to protect vulnerable soils. EWP helps communities address watershed impairments due to drought and other natural occurrences. This funding will help drought-ravaged communities and private landowners address watershed impairments, such as stabilizing stream banks and replanting sites stripped of vegetation.

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