Eight months have passed since massive wildfires tore through the central and southern plains.
Nearly 2 million acres spanning four states was scorched by the fast-moving fires in March. Thousands of miles of fencing was destroyed. The rebuilding process has started thanks to the generosity of money, supplies and labor from across the country. Most ranchers are still waiting on payments from the federal government, though.
In Beaver County, Okla., rancher Bernie Smith has been building fence for weeks and will likely continue into spring.
“We built a mile yesterday and a mile the day before,” says Robert Moore, one of the volunteers helping Smith. “It’s pretty good for just an old country bunch from Tennessee.”
At $10,000 per mile, rebuilding fence is expensive. “We have not received any [payment] yet,” Smith says. “As we build our fences, we turn in our paperwork and they [Farm Service Agency, FSA] assure they’re going to pay us.”
It’s the same situation for the owners of Giles Ranch in Ashland, Kan. There, 30,000 acres and 100 miles of fence burned in less than two hours.
“I know no one who’s received a payment yet if they have their fencing completed. The people in our office are wonderful people, trained very hard to do their best for their job, but their hands are tied,” says Jenny Betschart, an Ashland, Kan., rancher.
Earlier this year, several UDSA offices were realigned to put FSA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Risk Management Agency under one umbrella. The restructuring is an effort to improve customer service.
“You really can’t staff for disasters because typically you don’t know when they’re going to happen or you don’t know where you’re going to staff,” explains Steven Peterson, FSA acting administrator. “We’re finding we have to move a lot of resources to those disaster-affected areas to try to accommodate the workload.”
FSA’s emergency conservation program (ECP) provides funding to restore fencing from a natural disaster. Producers must complete paperwork and submit invoices to FSA.
“On the fencing side, they have to inspect every inch of your fence before you can get a payment,” Betschart says. “That’s thousands of miles in our county, and they expect two people in one office to efficiently inspect all of that?”
Peterson says NRCS and FSA are working together to inspect fences and split resources. They’ve pulled together “jump teams” of employees from other locations to help out.
Kansas lawmakers, Rep. Roger Marshall and Sen. Jerry Moran, introduced four bills in November they hope will improve livestock disaster programs through ECP and the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP). Some producers have received payment from LIP for the cattle they lost.
“Our bill would allow them to go get this money payment ... before they build the fence,” Marshall says.
Ranchers will take the help anyway and from anywhere they can get it.