Tester to USDA: Improve drought monitor

Farmers, ranchers need accuracy to apply for disaster programs

(U.S. SENATE) – Senator Jon Tester is calling on USDA to improve the accuracy of the drought monitor it uses to measure drought severity.

USDA currently combines various water data, including reservoir levels, streamflows, soil moisture, and precipitation to monitor drought levels throughout the United States.

In a letter to USDA today, Tester noted that dryland farmers and ranchers rely solely on precipitation for water, making streamflow and reservoir levels inconsequential to the effects a farmer or rancher may be experiencing from drought.

“A drought monitor that places significant weight on streamflows and reservoirs will produce a misleading and inaccurate picture of the drought impacts [dryland] producers currently suffer,” Tester wrote to USDA Secretary Vilsack today.

Accuracy of the drought monitor is important for farmers and ranchers because the Agriculture Secretary uses the drought monitor to designate counties as agriculture disaster areas.  The drought monitor also can determine producers’ eligibility for USDA disaster programs, including emergency haying and grazing of CRP land and the livestock forage disaster program.

Many of those disaster programs expired last September.  The Farm Bill that passed the Senate in June reauthorized the livestock disaster programs.  But the House of Representatives this week rejected calls to consider the Farm Bill before leaving for the August recess, leaving the critical provisions expired.  Tester, along with Senator Max Baucus, introduced a bill to extend the livestock disaster provisions as well as the SURE program, which would aid drought-stricken crop producers.

Tester’s letter to USDA is available below and online HERE.


August 1, 2012

The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack
Secretary of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Whitten Bldg, Room 200A 
Washington DC, 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

I am writing once again to urge you to continue to assist agricultural producers in Montana who are struggling with drought disaster conditions. Montana producers have shared their concerns with me that the drought monitor currently understates the severity of the conditions they see on the ground. I understand that the drought monitor combines different kinds of water data, including reservoir levels, streamflows, soil moisture, precipitation, and others, to create an overall picture of moisture conditions. However some aspects of drought have a much greater impact on farmers and ranchers than others. Furthermore, their impact varies widely between counties, depending on crops and production methods.

Due to adequate mountain snowpack last winter, streamflows and reservoirs remain at average levels across much of the state of Montana despite minimal precipitation since last summer. However, for non-irrigated producers, who rely entirely on precipitation to keep their crops alive, streamflow and reservoir levels make no difference whatsoever. Many counties in Montana have little irrigated production, and have received minimal precipitation since last summer. For these counties, a drought monitor that places significant weight on streamflows and reservoirs will produce a misleading and inaccurate picture of the drought impacts their producers currently suffer.

I appreciate that the use of the drought monitor assists in speeding FSA program delivery, which is a step forward in putting programs in place faster and decreasing bureaucratic delay. That said, if the drought monitor is to be used to determine program eligibility, either the monitor, or the eligibility thresholds should be more specific to producers’ actual experience. The data that underlies the combined drought monitor includes everything USDA should need to base eligibility on the actual impacts to production from the different aspects of drought. I urge you to work to improve the accuracy of this vital measure for producers in Montana.

Thank you once again for all of your work on behalf of Montana producers, and the consumers who rely on the stable food supply they provide.

Jon Tester                                           
United States Senator