The agricultural disasters of 2017 hit the livestock sector particularly hard. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and wildfires left thousands of head of livestock injured or dead, destroyed miles of fences and outbuildings, and wiped out stored hay and feed.
Kansas was hit particularly hard in March of 2017 when the Starbuck Fire, the largest wildfire in the history of the state, burned more than 600,000 acres in Clark and Comanche counties. Two other fires in Oklahoma burned an additional 200,000 acres the same day.
The disaster occurred almost exactly one year after the Anderson Creek wildfire burned almost 400,000 acres, the largest wildfire in the state to that point.
In the wake of those fires, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., have introduced legislation to improve and reform the livestock disaster programs Kansas farmers and ranchers rely on in times of natural disaster.
The legislation includes four bills to make changes to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) and Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) based on feedback from Kansas farmers and ranchers.
Both the Livestock Indemnity Program and the Emergency Conservation Program were first authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill and made indefinite in the 2014 Farm Bill.
Introducing reforms to them as free-standing legislation could bring much-needed help to farmers more quickly than waiting for it to come through changes to the title in the 2018 Farm Bill.
It could also potentially make the appropriation for them part of disaster aid in an omnibus spending bill, rather than having to pay for them from a stagnant farm bill budget.
“That has been done before when times are tough in ag,” says Roger McEowen, Farm Bureau professor of law at Washburn University.
Getting additional funding in the 2018 Farm Bill could be difficult, given that other programs that include ag research and more help for cotton and dairy producers are also looking for money, and funding is likely to be stagnant.
In cases of widespread disaster, it’s not unusual for the demand for disaster help to exceed the ceiling established for those programs. The result is either farmers and ranchers received aid of less than the program promises, or an additional appropriation for disaster relief has to be authorized, a process that is almost always time-consuming.
Should the farm bill come up for reauthorization before the proposed legislation passes and is signed into law, however, it could be used as another route to making the changes in the law, Moran says.
“Sen. Moran continues to have conversations with colleagues about the aid these bills would provide for farmers and ranchers nationwide, and will be looking for every possible opportunity to move this legislation through the Senate and on to being signed into law,” a spokesman for his office says.
“After several visits to survey the fire damage in southwest Kansas, I came away inspired by the resilience of the folks who were impacted,” Marshall says. “I also left frustrated by the way red tape and outdated regulations can interfere with a recovery. Through the experience of two wildfires in two years, we have found several areas where adjustments to programs would improve their delivery. These four bills represent a much-needed step toward making disaster programs more responsive to producers.”
Moran said his conversations with farmers and ranchers about the difficulties they had getting federal assistance following those disasters led him to try to find a way to help.
“I was not surprised that Kansans worked together as friends and neighbors to overcome many of the challenges they faced,” Moran says. “This legislation, based on feedback from Kansans, will provide greater financial assistance and ease the burden on farmers and ranchers who feed the nation, even during disastrous times. The changes to the LIP and ECP programs in this legislation will make certain that the FSA resources get to agriculture producers in need quickly and efficiently. I’m pleased to work with Rep. Marshall on this vital legislation for our farmers and ranchers to help them to recover and rebuild during devastating times.”
The first of the four bills, H.R. 4211, would allow for LIP partial payments. The second, H.R. 4210, would double the LIP payment limit. The third, H.R. 4213, would create an ECP fencing option to allow for upfront payments. The fourth bill, H.R. 4212, would raise the ECP payment limit.
H.R. 4211 would allow producers to receive a partial payment through the LIP program in the event livestock were severely injured, but still salvageable. Producers would be able to receive disaster payments for the difference between what a producer would receive at a processing facility versus the LIP payment for the same animal.
H.R. 4210 would double the LIP payment limit in an effort to make certain that ranchers who lose hundreds of their cattle in one disaster can have a chance at recovery. The current LIP payment limit covers about 70 cow-calf pairs. Several individual operations in Kansas lost over 500 head of cattle during the Clark County fires this year. The increased payment limit would also apply to the Livestock Forage Disaster Program and Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish Program.
A significant portion of ECP payments issued to farmers and ranchers following disasters go toward repairing and replacing damaged or destroyed fences. Construction requires large upfront costs for material and labor, but the current design of the ECP slows down the payment process. During the Anderson Creek fire, for example, it took more than a year in most cases for landowners to receive ECP payments. H.R. 4213 would give the USDA the authority to offer landowners the option to be paid upfront the fair market value of the portion of the fence that the USDA approves to be built or repaired under ECP requirements.
H.R. 4212 would raise the ECP payment limits to better accommodate the costs of rebuilding fences. Natural disasters like fires can damage hundreds of miles of fence at a time, as they did during the Clark County fires. This bill would match the ECP payment limit to the Emergency Forest Restoration Program. As fences cost approximately $10,000 per mile to rebuild, the current ECP limit covers approximately 26 miles of fence at 75% cost-share, creating a significant gap between the fence covered by the ECP and the fence needed. This legislation would narrow that gap.