ALL OR NOTHING: All your acres must be enrolled, or you're out

WILLISTON, N.D. -- Steve Mortenson is starting to dive into the red tape for the new federal disaster program. In early August, Mortenson was at the Williams County (N.D.) Farm Service Agency office, signing up for emergency Conservation Reserve ...

WILLISTON, N.D. -- Steve Mortenson is starting to dive into the red tape for the new federal disaster program.

In early August, Mortenson was at the Williams County (N.D.) Farm Service Agency office, signing up for emergency Conservation Reserve Program haying, and making sure proper applications had been filed for the new permanent disaster programs. Part of this is paying buy-in; part of this is making sure that documents are in order to prove he'd insured the land.

"That is on all of your acres - haying and grazing acres," Mortenson says. "If you're not insured on everything, you don't get disaster payments on anything. You have to stay on top of these deadlines and regulations if you're going to qualify."

Corey Paryzek, FSA county executive director for Williams County, says traffic has been busy, with acreage reporting, signing up for direct and counter-cyclical programs, and applying for the "SURE" buy-in for the permanent disaster program.

The 2008 farm bill requires that farmers have crop insurance or non-insured crop disaster assistance programs to be eligible the disaster payments. Since the Feb. 28 deadline for those programs happened before the bill was passed, farmers without it can request a waiver and pay a "buy-in" fee.



Farmers pay $100 per crop, and not more than $300 per county, or $900 per all counties, minus any crop insurance or non-insured crop disaster assistance program fees previously paid. The permanent disaster program is called Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program.

This one-time SURE buy-in deadline may be difficult for some farmers, Paryzek says.

"With farmers in the field, haying and harvesting, we're hoping the administration might come up with a 'register' program so they can go past that Sept. 16 date and still meet the intent of the law," Paryzek says. "That hasn't happened yet."

Just certifying the crop acres this year by the Aug. 15 deadline has been difficult, because all non-crop grazing and hay acres must have been certified by that date. This gets complicated if a farmer's pasture is listed under someone else's farm.

"It's new for many counties to report non-crop or hayland acres," Paryzek says.

FSA officials have approved late-filing of those reports, with no penalty fee.

Mortenson, his son, Joe, and several hired men, put in 8,000 acres of durum wheat, 1,800 acres of barley and 400 acres of sugar beets. They also have 400 black Angus cow-calf pairs, which they've been feeding since mid-July because of the drought.


When in drought

On non-irrigated acres, eight miles west of Williston, N.D., Mortenson raises durum, spring wheat and barley, as well as corn for silage. Under irrigation, 14 miles south of Williston, he raises corn, sugar beets, malting barley and durum.

After an average 2007 crop, this year has been a full-blown drought, with only 1.25 inches of rain through the growing period on the non-irrigated crops.

Dryland durum yields so far have run from 2 to 7 bushels an acre, with test weights in the 49 to 53 pound range. Non-irrigated malt barley yields ranged from 15 to 18 bushels an acre, with test weights of 40 to 42 pounds.

Even in the irrigated crop, the results will be lackluster because of late emergence and hailstorms.

"We're looking at half -yield on the irrigated crops," he says. His sugar beet acres were cut back by two-thirds because of competition with cereal grain prices this year.

Mortenson's non-irrigated land caught a few thunderstorms for a total of a half-inch in late July and early August, but otherwise was it was dry, with no fall or winter precipitation to speak of.

"I think a lot of people are going to be selling their cattle early, on account of the cost of hay and of getting the hay here, with transportation costs," Mortenson says. "I'm going to hold on to mine until I can wean my calves. And then if we don't get measurable precipitation by November/December, probably be selling the whole herd of 400 head. It's not good."


For the past four years, Mortenson has been raising 250 acres of non-irrigated corn, which can only be insured as silage. In an average year, he can grow 40 to 45 bushels of grain corn. This year he won't produce any.

"I like running the cattle on it after I take the grain off in the fall," Mortenson says. "This year my pastures are all bare."

Mortenson was denied a request to his insurance company to graze cereal grains. The company did release the corn because of a "permanent wilt" program.

Mortenson had hoped he could construct small pens to allow grazing and still prove a loss.

"Right now the crop insurance company has taken away that provision because it was abused down south in the winter wheat country," Mortenson says.


Not many in the area raise corn like Mortenson does, but there are others who would have benefited from grazing.

"We're in the process of combining the cereal grains," Mortenson says. "We're looking at probably a 5 to 7 bushel per acre yield. The earlier stuff stood up a bit better, but stuff seeded in the May 5 to May 10 timeframe literally just burned up in the boot. It wasn't so much the heat, but the lack of precipitation in the fall, the winter and the spring."

Using no-till, Mortenson typically gets a wheat crop of 28 to 32 bushels per acre.

"We can do that with 6 to 7 inches of rain in the growing season, but this year we're probably down to 2.5 or 3."

While it was frustrating not to raise a crop in a year of strong prices, Mortenson acknowledges crop insurance will be a big help. Price selections in February allowed him to lock in coverage for his costs. He notes that if price selections next February don't repeat with strong values, the crop insurance values may slip $30 to $50 an acre less next year.

Mortenson so far hasn't pre-bought any fertilizer for 2009. He'll soil-test, but he's hoping there is a carry-over of fertilizer on his non-irrigated land. He plans to shift somewhat to legumes to save on costs. He usually raises peas or lentils, but not this year because of strong prices in cereal grains.

"Here we've doubled or tripled our fertilizer costs, along with the fuel costs," he says. "We're going to be in the situation like we were four or five years ago, with huge risk. "We're in an oilfield economy out here. As far as our repairs, our labor, everything is costing 30 (percent) to 40 percent more than it was in average ag economy."

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