By: HENRY C. JACKSON, Associated Press
South Dakota's congressional delegation pressed the U.S. agriculture secretary Wednesday to expedite a provision in the new farm bill that helps ranchers in the Dakotas and Nebraska recover from an October blizzard.
The nearly $100 billion-a-year federal farm bill, which awaits President Barack Obama's signature, restarts a livestock disaster program that had expired. Members of the South Dakota delegation were among those urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make sure there are no delays getting the relief money to ranchers.
Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and other lawmakers signed a letter Wednesday asking Vilsack to move quickly to provide relief to ranchers and farmers who suffered heavy losses. The total amount of the aid was not clear and would depend on total losses for producers.
"Passing a farm bill that included livestock disaster programs was an important first step, and now that relief needs to reach those affected by the storm as quickly as possible," Johnson said in a news release.
In their letter, the lawmakers said the blizzard killed more than 20,000 cattle, sheep, horses and bison in South Dakota and parts of North Dakota and Nebraska, and in some cases left producers with less than half of their herds. They said last time a farm bill was passed, in 2008, it took just over a year for ranchers to receive payment for routine cattle losses, and that it shouldn't take that long this time.
"They've waited long enough for much-needed support," said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who worked on the committee that combined the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.
Noem said she had separately already been in touch with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get the program functioning as soon as possible. The reauthorized program will cover losses from 2012, when the last program expired.
The immediate push for the USDA to get the program up and running again reflects a reality of the massive farm bill, which provides clarity to farmers and others associated with agriculture. But at $100 billion per year over five years, the bill's size and scope mean it contains various elements that will need to be scrutinized, lawmakers said.
While disaster relief is the most pressing element of the new farm bill for South Dakota, other components will have an effect on the state's agriculture community and lawmakers said they would be watching them closely.
Thune said he is interested in the execution of language on forestry that he worked to include in the bill. The bill provides more flexibility in dealing with the health of forests and gives the Forest Service greater ability to treat some environments before they are affected by pine beetles, which is an issue in South Dakota.
Lawmakers have also said they will watch how new conservation language is implemented. The new bill ties subsidies for farmers to compliance with conservation initiatives. For farmers who want to plant on certain types of protected lands, it cuts subsidies in half.
Thune said in a statement that he was satisfied with the final product, but would continue to pressing for ways to help farmers.
"I will continue fighting for commodity policy reforms that provide a better market for farmers and a better value for taxpayers," he said.
The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday, less than a week after the House passed it.