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Heitkamp: Hearing from North Dakotans about drought, next Farm Bill

By Staff | Sep 1, 2017

North Dakota farmers and ranchers are no stranger to tough times, but this months-long drought has swallowed up almost all of our state and burned through our usually-lush grasslands unlike anything we’ve seen before. You can’t go anywhere without hearing about how the drought is impacting local farmers and ranchers, which is also affecting local economies and communities.

As I traveled across much of western North Dakota on my two-day, seven-stop drought and Farm Bill tour earlier in August, I wanted to hear from the farmers, ranchers, FSA workers, and experts about the challenges they face from the drought and talk about how I can help. And I wanted to hear the priorities of North Dakota producers so I can advocate for them when Congress is putting together the next Farm Bill in 2018.

When I started in the U.S. Senate, one of my first and proudest achievements was helping write, negotiate, and pass a strong Farm Bill in 2014. This drought is a stress test for the Farm Bill which was written during a time of steady rain and high commodity prices very different than the conditions farmers and ranchers face today. It’s now clear farmers and ranchers need stronger, more expanded safety net programs they can count on so they can better weather tough times, like drought.

During large meetings in Watford City and Mandan — and in a meeting with over 100 ranchers in Bowman in July — I spoke with ranchers and agriculture leaders who are really concerned about the drought, including the high cost of hauling in hay and livestock adding to their financial burden. But they are ready to work together to do the best they can during difficult times.

Congress needs to also do what it can to help, and I’m already fighting for some immediate relief and to protect crop insurance and other critical safety net programs in the next Farm Bill from harsh cuts in the president’s budget. To improve the safety net for these ranchers, last month, I successfully pressed U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee leaders to increase and expand federal emergency assistance for livestock and honeybees to cover haying and livestock hauling expenses.

In Dickinson, I spoke with Stark County FSA workers who told me of the onslaught of drought-related inquires that have overwhelmed their staff. To help address this issue, I called for immediate help from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and help is now on the way USDA is deploying workers to six North Dakota FSA offices, including Dickinson’s FSA office. But we still need to do more to make sure farmers and ranchers can obtain written assurances from their FSA offices to plan for the future.

Addressing this drought doesn’t end with those who till the fields and produce the food that feed the nation. Visiting with beekeepers in Halliday and NDSU Extension researchers in Manning, I heard about the dire impact of the drought on managed honeybees and on the soil that allows our crops and forage to grow. In the next Farm Bill, I’ll fight for the protections I achieved in the last Farm Bill to restore honeybee habitats and to continue the strong agriculture research funding to secure a healthier future for the pollinators and soil our crops depend on.

In Richardton, I visited Stone Mill, North America’s largest organic food flax processing facility, which reinforced how critical USDA’s export promotion programs programs I fought for in the 2014 Farm Bill are to supporting agriculture businesses. To effectively weather tough times, farmers, ranchers, and ag businesses need to be able to plan for the future and these programs help make that possible.

Even when you can see the deepening red on the U.S. Drought Monitor, hearing directly from the folks fighting to make it through the drought makes all the difference. Just as I did after my Farm Bill tour on the eastern part of the state last summer, I’m taking everything I learned from these visits back to Washington so we can help address serious challenges from the drought now, and make sure the 2018 Farm Bill works for our state.

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