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Storm aftermath

Sugar beets sit in floodwater after high winds and large hail pounded Yellowstone County in early August.

Another $1.5 billion has been added to a federal disaster aid package, which should benefit Montana farmers clobbered by bad fall weather.

The federal Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus was bolstered recently to address severe weather damage to crop quality and market value. Farmers in Northern Tier states from Montana to Minnesota were unable to harvest several thousand acres this fall. And, the quality and market value of what was harvested was severely diminished by weather.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., pushed for the additional money after farmers in northeastern Montana said WHIP+ was leaving them behind, largely because the terms for qualifying didn’t match the weather conditions farmers experienced. Before Tester's fix, WHIP+ didn't cover losses due to excessive moisture, or drought, or losses in crop quality. 

It was deep September snow that knocked out Rob Davis’ crops near Larslan on the Fort Peck Reservation.

“Up here in our corner of the state, it was Sept. 27 and 28 snow. That’s what crippled our harvest. And then it was several more inches of snow and rain after that. One after another,” Davis said.

After September snow flattened crops in the Larslan area, there was little recovery.

Friday, a deep blanket of snow covered Larslan, a tiny farm community one hour south of Canada and 100 miles west of the North Dakota border. Historically, this part of Montana gets snow in January and February, Davis said, but the weather patterns have been abnormal the past several years. It’s unusual to have snow a foot deep on the ground in December, let alone snow that fell in the fall and didn’t melt off right away.

There are still a few hundred acres of flax waiting to be harvested on Davis Farm. Flax has a stem tough as wire, which withstood the early snow, Davis said. He hopes to harvest the 2019 crop when the snow clears in 2020. But, the majority of his crops took the fall weather’s punch right on the snout.

Davis did manage to get his durum harvested in late August. And right now that durum is fetching a decent price, as much as $6.50 a bushel at the northeast Montana elevator, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market News. But buoying price is a supply slump brought about by the weather-damaged durum in Montana and North Dakota.

Right now, there’s a lot of weather-damaged durum selling for $3 a bushel or less. The moisture content of the grain is 18%, a level that grain elevators say they cannot accept. So, farmers work to dry their grain to at least 14% moisture, which isn’t easy, Davis said.

There are still regulation hoops to jump through for Montana farmers in counties with damaged crops. WHIP+ is available only to farmers in counties listed as primary disaster areas, said Lola Raska, Montana Grain Growers Association executive vice president. The rules differ from most federal disaster programs, which allow multiple counties to piggyback on the primary designation of a neighboring county. Rarely do all counties require a primary disaster designation for qualify for assistance.

Seventeen Montana counties are seeking primary disaster designations stemming from unseasonably heavy snow and rain in September and October. The Montana Farm Service Agency is assembling the claims.

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Earlier in December, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock requested federal disaster designations for Big Horn, Carbon, McCone, Richland, Rosebud, Treasure and Yellowstone counties, several of which are the backbone of the state’s sugar beet industry. Those counties join Daniels, Roosevelt, and Sheridan and Valley counties, which were recognized in October for having extreme fall weather damage. The counties recognized in October represent 45% of Montana’s spring wheat production, and nearly all of its durum crop. In Montana, annual wheat sales are worth $600 million to $1.5 billion a year depending on weather and market conditions.

Sugar beets received an early carve-out of WHIP+ funds, mostly to address farmer losses to rain and freezing conditions in Minnesota and North Dakota. Beet farmers in Montana didn’t fare much better. In the Richland County area, as many as 14 inches of rain fell in September, the amount the county normally receives in a year.

Farmers in Richland County told The Gazette they were unable to harvest sugar beets until the middle of October because of rain and cold temperatures. At least 1,000 acres went unharvested, and what did make it to the beet pile was left for processing under that agreement that if the beets spoiled, farmers had to haul them back home.

Tester vented frustration at USDA in a Friday press release for not making WHIP+ available in September to farmers, other than those growing sugar beets. He had asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to make WHIP+ available. Perdue’s staff said it couldn’t.

“The USDA should have provided assistance to Montana farmers back in September when we first brought this crisis to their attention,” Tester said in the press release. “Now there is no shadow of a doubt that these producers qualify for WHIP+, so the USDA needs to get it in gear and immediately provide support to folks in Northeastern Montana because family farms are on the line. We’re done asking — now we’re telling.”

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