On Monday, Dec. 2, Richland County Commissioners sent Montana Gov. Steve Bullock a request for secretarial and presidential disaster declarations for harvest-time weather damage to crops. The request comes on the heels of multiple discussions regarding the tough harvest season in the area, with many agriculturists still struggling with unharvested crops.
“There was a lot of research done with the sugar factory in regard to tonnage and acreage that was lost,” Commissioner Loren Young said. “There was insurance agents that were contacted in regard to what percentage of policy holders are crop insurance policies.”
Young said they also spoke with specialty seed planters and learned safflower was likely hit the hardest and that became the key to the disaster declaration.
In the letter, commissioners stated information gathered shows a high likelihood that the county will qualify for Wildfire and Hurricane Idemnity Program-Plus (WHIP+). The program provides assistance for production losses to farmers instead of loans. To qualify for WHIP+, a crop must experience a 30% loss or higher, which safflower qualified for.
Young, a safflower farmer in past years, said the crop just couldn’t perform this year.
“It does not like 11 inches of rain over a period of four to five weeks,” he said. “The pod is a natural funnel. [Water] gets in there and turns the core of the seed green. When they process it for oil, instead of having the nice oil you see in the grocery stores, it’s a nasty green oil. It’s basically a total loss.”
In the letter, it is stated Seigfreid Agency Insurance and Real Estate estimates 75% of their clients have claims on spring wheat, safflower, oats, mustard, corn, peas and barley.
“The claims are being settled as the farmers are able to complete their harvest,” Alan Seigfreid said.
The head adjustor for Seigfreid Agency said as of Nov. 26 there were 102 total claims for the county, with 48 still left open. Of those still open, 25 are wheat, 10 are safflower, and the remaining are made up of oats, mustard, corn, peas and barley.
Another crop hit hard this season was sugar beets. An estimated 1,200-1,400 acres of sugar beets went unharvested this season. Sidney Sugars agreed to an addendum to accept frozen beets, collecting around 186,000 tons. Approximately 30,000 tons of those frozen beets are unlikely to be processed, the commissioner’s letter said.
With one percentage point loss to sugar content, unharvested acres, unprocessed frozen beets and yield loss, commissioners estimated a total loss of $6.9 million for sugar beet growers.
The letter to Bullock also acknowledges North Dakota’s request for a disaster declaration on Nov. 1 for 47 of their 53 counties. In Montana, counties of Daniels, Lake, McCone, Park, Powder River, Stillwater, Treasure and Valley already have disaster declarations. Sheridan and Yellowstone counties are also petitioning the governor.
The neighboring counties disaster declarations should help Richland County’s case too.
“I think it will carry some weight, we hope,” Young said.
“I feel really confident [Bullock]’s going to put his signature on it and he’s going to get it off to the federal government so we can look at that help coming,” Commissioner Shane Gorder said.
After a signature from the governor, the request will be sent to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue and it is then sent on to the president.
County Commissioners hope the process provides relief to the area.
“It’s not a perfect world with all these programs, but it’s the only one we could find to try to bring some relief to some of the growers,” Young said. “The whole thing is tied to the tax base... Some of these growers really have the potential to get upside down if there isn’t a little relief.”
Young said the commission felt an obligation to do the best they could for their constituents. Gorder and Commissioner Duane Mitchell echoed the importance of supporting the area’s agriculture.
“Agriculture is still number one,” Mitchell said.
Sen. Tester responds
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester added pressure at the national level for a disaster declaration in northeast Montana with a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue on Monday, Dec. 2.
The letter stated, “I write today to express my disappointment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) response to the farmers in crisis in Northeast Montana. USDA’s failure to act may be the tipping point for some Montana family farmers.”
Tester writes that producers have faced “unprecedented weather challenges” this year, including spring flooding and excessive fall moisture.
“These farmers are facing a dire financial situation as the year wraps up, which is why I am extremely disappointed in your decision to exclude Montana farmers from the WHIP+ program for quality loss related to excessive moisture,” the letter stated.
Tester urged Purdue to take a closer look at the challenges facing the area, which now includes winter weather.
“Northeast Montana farmers have been through the mill this season, and now you have the opportunity to offer them some security and certainty going into 2020,” Tester concluded.