Farmers Make Good Neighbors
Apr 21, 2017
In early March, high winds drove wildfires across much of the Southern Plains, affecting farmers and ranchers in 35 counties in three states--Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. By the time the winds died down, seven fire-related deaths had occurred in the three states, including three Texas ranch employees trying to save their livestock from the flames, while two first responders died as well. USDA’s current estimate is that more than 1.5 million acres were burned, nearly 20,000 head of cattle and hogs killed, and several hundred miles of fencing destroyed. The livelihoods of several hundred farmers and ranchers are now under threat.
Within days, other farmers from around the country began to respond to the disaster in the Southern Plains. For example, on March 9th, the Director of Disaster Relief in Louisiana, Mr. Gibbie McMillan, issued a call for donations to help the fire-affected ranchers, especially bales of hay which would be needed to feed surviving cattle. Similarly, Missouri farmers and agribusiness operators collaborated to send hundreds of hay bales to farmers in distress in Oklahoma. On one Sunday in mid-March, 250 bales were trucked from Missouri to Oklahoma, an eight-hour trip one way. Farmers in other states, such as Iowa and Tennessee, have held auctions to raise money to send to affected farmers in the three states.
Last month was far from the first time that U.S. farmers have stepped up in such a way to help their fellow farmers across the country. The first such event I could identify was in response to a series of massive snowstorms that hit the Western United States in the winter of 1948-49, endangering millions of sheep and cattle grazing in the states of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and North Dakota at different times during that winter. The first batch of hay bales provided to the Nevada ranchers to feed stranded herds came from their fellow farmers, and were moved by truck. Later hay distributions were underwritten by both state and federal governments. In order to reach the most remote locations, President Truman called in transport planes from the U.S. Air Force to air-drop the bales of hay, in many instances utilizing flight crews who had participated in the Berlin Airlift that started in the summer of 1948. Over a nearly two-month period, these planes flew 325 sorties to drop more than 1,700 tons of hay. In 1950, a documentary film about the operation in Nevada, entitled “Operation Haylift” was released. That film is actually available for viewing today in a DVD collection of films entitled “Darn Good Westerns, Volume 1.”
Similar haylifts have been organized in recent years, though mostly through private sector efforts and not involving state or federal governments. A rare snowstorm in New Mexico in January 1998 prompted the U.S. government to drop hundreds of tons of hay to stranded livestock in the southeastern portion of that state. A persistent drought in Ohio and Pennsylvania in 1999 drew donated hay from farmers from as far away as Nebraska to help out. Another drought in Nebraska three years later drew help from other parts of the country--I attended a field hearing near Lincoln, Nebraska in August of that year, and remember seeing a farmer mowing the ditches alongside I-80 to get some precious forage for his animals. Examples abound of the generosity of American farmers toward those less fortunate, both farmers and non-farmers.
Farmers in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma affected by the March wildfires will be eligible for some types of federal assistance as well, although it may not cover all their losses. Data from USDA’s Risk Management Agency indicates that more than 10,000 forage or rangeland insurance policies were sold in those three states for 2017, with more than $565 million in liability covered. On March 22nd, USDA announced the availability of $6 million in funds through the EQIP program to help farmers in those three states rebuild fences and restore grazing land. On April 4th, USDA announced that it would allow emergency grazing on up to 5.6 million acres of CRP land in those three states for the remainder of 2017. Livestock producers are also eligible for compensation for the dead animals under the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), and for lost forage under the Livestock Forage Program.
No federal disaster designation has yet been made for the affected counties in the three states, but once that decision is made, additional assistance in the form of low-interest emergency loans to help restore fire-damaged structures and facilities would be available.
If you would like to step up and help as well, Farm Journal Foundation is working with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to provide assistance to these farmers. Any funds donated toward the Wildfire Relief Challenge at this website (http://fgdev1.com/) will be matched by the Buffett Foundation, up to a total of one million dollars.