SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Congress needs to move quickly to pass a farm bill, largely to help western South Dakota ranchers recovering from a fall blizzard that killed thousands of cattle, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and leaders of the South Dakota Farmers Union and SD Stockgrowers Association said Tuesday.
The early October storm impacted more than 600 farmers and ranchers, some of whom lost more than half their herds, said Doug Mack, a board member of the Stockgrowers Association.
"These producers have been sitting there waiting as patiently as possible for months now," he said. "Without these things going forward, we're going to lose some excellent producers."
Mark Buchholz, who ranches near Philip and owns an implement dealership, said he hopes the bill caps payment limitations at $250,000, which would cover the loss of about 125 cattle.
"Even though you're a sole owner, there's hired men involved," he said of other costs. "$100,000 is a Band-Aid. $250,000 is at least going to be dressing on the wound."
Buchholz also would like Congress to make the payments retroactive to cover losses from the 2012 drought. "Because in this country, everybody was affected by the drought something terrible," he said.
Farm bill negotiators have been working nearly continuously — including over Congress' Christmas break — to try and broker a compromise between House and Senate versions of the roughly $500 billion measure. Both houses approved versions of the five-year bill in 2013, but they contained key differences regarding crop subsidies and how much to cut from food stamp programs.
Negotiators have said they are closing in on a deal, with a goal of having one in place by the end of the month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has worked to maintain milk subsidies that would prevent dairy prices from skyrocketing, giving negotiators more time. But that flexibility is expected to be gone by the end of the month.
Passage would mark the first farm bill since a 2008 deal. That expired in 2012 but was extended until last September.
Johnson, Mack and Doug Sombke, president of the South Dakota Farmers Union, also warned Congress not to dilute the Country of Origin Labeling law that tells consumers where their food comes from.
Republican Sen. John Thune said farm bill negotiators are close to reaching agreement on the major sticking points, including livestock payments, dairy policy and the labeling law, though on that issue they have to ensure it doesn't draw retaliation from Canada and Mexico, as both countries have vowed.
Thune said he hopes the farm bill could move out of conference committee this week. "However, this Farm Bill's history is that of new issues popping up when it appears major differences are resolved," he said in an emailed statement.
Republican Rep. Kristi Noem said she believes it's possible to protect consumers and maintain a strong trade relationship with neighboring countries.
"I am fully committed to getting a Farm Bill finalized in the next few weeks that avoids market distortions, keeps food costs low, and gives South Dakota producers the tools and certainty they need this Spring," she said in an emailed statement.