USDA Declares Disaster in 17 Montana Counties After Months-Long Tester Push

Disaster declaration comes on the heels of legislation authored by Senator Tester expanding assistance eligibility for farmers facing quality loss and excessive moisture

After a months-long push by U.S. Senator Jon Tester to provide relief for farmers in Eastern Montana, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a disaster declaration for 17 Montana counties, clearing the way for producers to receive critical assistance through the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus (WHIP+). The counties effected are Cascade, Chouteau, Pondera, Glacier, Teton, Dawson, Prairie, Toole, McCone, Richland, Roosevelt, Wibaux, Daniels, Rosebud, Sheridan, Treasure, and Valley.

This disaster declaration comes on the heels of an update to the WHIP+ program that was secured by Senator Tester in December following months of efforts to get the USDA to provide relief for Montana producers. Tester’s fix ensures that farmers facing quality loss, drought, and excessive moisture qualify for support through WHIP+ and it increases funding for the program by $1.5 billion to cover these new categories. Tester was the only member of Montana’s delegation to vote for the legislation containing the fix.

“The USDA dragged their feet for months on providing support for Montana farmers, so we finally stepped in and told them to get their act together because family farms are on the line,” said Tester. “I’m glad the USDA eventually did the right thing and issued a disaster declaration for Eastern Montana, but now they need to quickly determine criteria and payment rates so Montana producers can have the support and certainty they need moving into growing season.”

In September, Senator Tester sent Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue a letter asking the USDA to clarify that WHIP+ includes value and quality losses, and that farmers in Northeast Montana facing those losses were eligible for the program. Nearly eight weeks later, USDA finally responded that they would not provide assistance to Montana farmers because excessive moisture was not covered under WHIP+. Tester followed up with a second letter to Secretary Perdue in December urging him to reconsider.

Today, Tester sent a third letter urging the USDA to quickly implement the new provisions of WHIP+ and determine criteria and payment rates for producers in order to bring them certainty for the 2020 growing season.

“Now that Congress has paved the way for USDA to provide aid, I ask that you quickly implement the new provisions of WHIP+,” wrote Tester. “President Trump signed the funding bill into law more than a month ago, and…yet, I am hearing from sugar and wheat producers in Montana that they are no closer to receiving a disaster payment. As farmers and lenders evaluate finances and credit opportunities for the 2020 growing season, WHIP+ will play an important part in balancing the books.”

As the only working farmer in the U.S. Senate, Tester has been a champion for farmers and ranchers across the country. Earlier this year, he introduced his Seeding Rural Resilience Act to help combat rising rates of farmer suicide, and The Trump Administration recently adopted his Restoring Rural Residencies Act into a rule change to bring more medical professionals into rural hospitals.