Tester seeks disaster help for farm communities

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Montana farms and ranches clobbered by disaster need to seek federal help now, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Friday, noting that 35 other states have already qualified for disaster help.

With fires in Texas and Arizona, floods along the Mississippi River and tornadoes in the mid-South, the need for federal disaster aid is growing rapidly, the Montana Democrat said. The current scale of disaster is something rarely seen. And states like Montana, where drought is the norm, are in unfamiliar territory as they deal with considerable flood damage.

“We have never been here before, and hopefully we won’t be again for a long time,” Tester said.

Tester toured flood-ravaged southern and central Montana on Friday, stopping at Huntley to review $2 million in irrigation damage that has left a $17.5 million Yellowstone Valley farm economy without water for several weeks.

He later toured flood-isolated Roundup and flew over the badly damaged Delphia Canal. Canal manager Lynne Rettig said substantial repairs are needed if regional crops are to survive, but no government assistance has been found yet.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer wrote President Barack Obama on June 1 requesting a major disaster declaration for the state. He followed the letter Friday with a request for federal financial assistance for 32 counties and four Indian reservations. Storms and flooding have caused $8.6 million in damage to local public infrastructure, Schweitzer reported, and the number is expected to increase.

“If we can get the presidential declaration, that will help out a lot in freeing up some federal money,” Tester said.

In the meantime, the senator brought the national director of the Farm Service Agency, Montanan Bruce Nelson, to Billings along with representatives from the Federal Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help farmers find any existing federal programs that might help.

Montana’s farm communities are not in a position to go it alone, Tester said.

“Their pockets are pretty shallow right now,” Tester said. “We had good profits last year, but that goes pretty fast.”

Nelson told farmers and local government officials meeting near the Yellowstone County Farm Service Agency offices that, to date, 1.4 million Montana acres had been affected by flooding, with possibly more to come as mountain snowpack that’s 200 percent of average begins melting. Much of the damage won’t be known until rivers are back in their banks, perhaps weeks from now.

Several things were being done to help Montana farmers, Nelson said. Federal disaster declarations are expected to lower the bar considerably for qualifying for Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments, also known as the SURE program. Without a disaster declaration, farmers would need a 50 percent crop loss to qualify, but with the declaration, the number would be 10 percent.

Montanans aren’t strangers to SURE. The program paid out $42 million to farmers after disasters in 2008 and $27 million for 2009 disasters with more to come.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is offering Emergency Conservation Program assistance to farmers in 19 Montana counties to help with the cost of clearing debris, fixing flood gullies and leveling land.

And the Farm Service Agency is taking applications from farmers prevented from planting by flooding and rains. Ranchers are being offered Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding, or EQIP, to help with animal watering costs where drinking reservoirs have been damaged.

EQIP money is also available for farmers needing to plant ground cover to prevent weeds and soil erosion from destroying fields where crops couldn’t be planted on time.

On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released $3 million to the Natural Resources Conservation Service to carry out emergency restoration projects, like those needed near Huntley. The money directed at five Western states will bring $600,000 in emergency assistance to Montana projects.

Tester, who, along with Sen. Max Baucus, pressed Vilsack to release the NRCS money, said it’s important that irrigation projects interested in the fund find a local government to sponsor their application. Federal law requires that a local, state or tribal government be involved with securing funding.

Securing funding for U.S. disasters will be a political battle, Tester said, with a tightening budget and differences between Republicans and Democrats over who needs aid.