Ranchers Recover From Drought Without Congress

Ranchers devastated by drought, recover without government hand.


The uncertainty surrounding the farm bill's fate in Congress has made many farmers downright angry, but ranchers, who struggled through a historic drought last summer, say they lost hope in Washington long ago.

"I think most of us are moving on with the thought that Congress is not going to be our savior," says Leon LaSalle, a Montana rancher. "As ranchers, we take heavy blows and then put our boots on when the sun comes up and go back out."

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Congress voted to extend the 2008 farm bill in January, but ranchers, who'd experienced a devastating drought in the summer of 2012 were left to fend for themselves. In short, disaster relief for ranchers was part of the 2008 farm bill, but it was only budgeted to last through 2011, leaving them unprotected from Mother Nature's wrath during 2012's hot, dry summer.

Half of the nation's counties were considered drought disaster areas in 2012. And while most farmers have crop insurance to turn to, ranchers were literally left high and dry.

LaSalle said the costs of feed prices skyrocketed and wildfires raged across the Montana plains.

His ranch along Montana's highline wasn't declared a disaster zone, but LaSalle says there was plenty of pain to go around.

One rancher, Cecil Kolka, who'd lived on his ranch since 1935, lost 400 cattle – half of his herd – in a fire.

"One of my associates was droughted out so bad, I brought 100 head of the cattle up to my land," LaSalle recalls.

After more than a year since the drought, ranchers may finally see relief in the current farm bill that hangs in the balance. The Senate passed its version of the agriculture bill in June, which included a permanent disaster relief program for ranchers and would retroactively reimburse insured ranchers for their losses in 2012.

But disagreements in the House over how much money should be shaved from the food stamp program has slowed down the process.

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"There's a lot of talk in Congress about creating jobs. In Montana, the farm bill is our jobs bill," says Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "Ranchers break their backs to put food on our tables. They deserve to know we're behind them when disaster strikes. I'm determined to get a farm bill with permanent disaster assistance signed into law this year."

LaSalle says a little help from Washington is always better late than never.

Jess Peterson, the executive vice president of the U.S. Cattleman's Association, says traveling the country, he's seen a level of resiliency in the cattle ranchers you don't see from many other people.

"They just get the work done," Peterson says. "We try to get them engaged, but if these ranchers waited on Washington, those cattle would never get moved, those cattle would never get hay. They are not going to look over at those members of Congress and say they are breaking their promises, but as their spokesman I will."

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