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North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne.

ND Farmers Union head calls for disaster bill amid extreme drought

BISMARCK — Facing historically dry conditions affecting the state's farmers and ranchers, the president of the North Dakota Farmers Union called on Congress to provide emergency financial assistance Tuesday, July 11.

"It's time for agriculture to once again get the federal support that it should have, because we provide the highest-quality, best food system in the world," Mark Watne said. "We're going to need help with a disaster bill."

Members of North Dakota's congressional delegation, however, offered little optimism that such a request would be fulfilled in the near future.

"We replaced the need for ad-hoc disaster relief when we passed the Farm Bill and replaced all of that with the crop insurance program," said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. "We want to utilize ... all the tools in the tool chest before we'd ever go to that extreme anyway."

Watne's request — he also called for better support in the Farm Bill — comes as most of the state suffers from drought, prompting concerns about the state's agriculture industry and the increased risk of wildfires. As of last week, about 47 percent of North Dakota was in a severe or extreme drought, according to the latest information available from the U.S. Drought Monitor, with the worst conditions concentrated in the western half of the state.

The dry conditions helped fuel a large wildfire near Grassy Butte northwest of Dickinson over the weekend. Firefighters were still tending to the so-called "Magpie Fire" Tuesday.

Gov. Doug Burgum declared a statewide fire and drought emergency in late June, citing extremely dry conditions, lack of precipitation and high winds. Following a historically wet six months, North Dakota experienced its ninth-driest spring since 1890 this year, according to a presentation from North Dakota State Climatologist Adnan Akyuz.

State and federal agencies have taken some steps to provide relief, including Monday's announcement that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would open Conservation Reserve Program acres for haying within 150 miles of severe drought areas. Burgum signed an executive order Monday waiving hours of service restrictions for commercial drivers transporting hay, water and livestock while easing weight limits for those hauling hay and water.

Still, agriculture officials said challenges remain.

"We've already seen ... dramatic yield loss," Watne said. "This could be extremely devastating."

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, said ranchers are grappling with decisions like selling off "far more of their animals than was originally part of their business plan." She welcomed the USDA decision but said the scope of this year's drought has provided unique obstacles to ranchers.

"In some cases, ranch families that have had challenges with drought might be able to look a couple counties (away) and find some available feedstuff or find some grazing," she said. "The problem here is that the neighboring county and the county after that and the county after that is in the same or similar predicament."

A National Weather Service outlook said the drought would persist throughout much of the state in July. Todd Hamilton, a meteorologist at the NWS office in Bismarck, said average precipitation tends to drop in late July into the early fall.

Burgum will hold a town hall meeting on the drought Wednesday morning in Golden Valley along with Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and other state officials.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she would be "on board" with a disaster bill, but she said those bills tend to be temporary. She's been focused on improving existing programs to establish a "safety net" so "that money is there when we have a disaster," she said.

"We need to figure out how we can keep farmers on the land, how we can keep ranchers on the land," Heitkamp said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said a disaster bill is not in the cards "at this point," but added that his office is still working to get additional help from the USDA. He noted the worst drought conditions are largely concentrated in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

"When we've gotten those supplementals in the past, it's been when you had a pretty broad-based drought, which is not the case yet," Hoeven said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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