Senator calls for more USDA workers to respond to drought

Blake Nicholson
Associated Press
North Dakota farmers like John Weinand said many crops won't even be worth harvesting due to the severe drought this summer. A shortage of federal workers have left many farmers waiting a month or more for service, according to a Democratic senator.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is calling on the federal Agriculture Department to send more workers to western North Dakota, where she says understaffed Farm Service Agency offices are dealing with an overwhelming workload worsened by a summer of crippling drought.

The North Dakota Democrat said farmers and ranchers deserved help and "not an IOU," and her office reported complaints of service wait times at the offices of a month or more. Acting FSA Administrator Steven Peterson in a statement said the agency was committed to "prompt, courteous service."

Much of western North Dakota was mired in severe, extreme and even exceptional drought during the growing season — the worst conditions most farmers and ranchers have seen in decades. The weather withered pastures and cut deeply into crop and hay production in the state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared numerous North Dakota counties to be natural disasters, paving the way for a variety of federal aid such as emergency loans and payments for grazing losses.

USDA in midsummer sent additional staff to help process aid applications at FSA offices in McHenry, Mountrail, Bowman, Golden Valley, Hettinger and Stark counties. It wasn't clear how many. Those workers stayed only until the end of the fiscal year, according to Heitkamp.

"On Sept. 30, these teams were recalled and now many county offices face a seemingly insurmountable workload," she said in a Thursday letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

County FSA office directors in western North Dakota on Friday said they had been told not to comment on the staffing and workload situation. The state FSA office also declined comment.

The national office supplied the statement from Peterson saying FSA "continues to provide additional funding to assist North Dakota with disaster-related temporary staffing, overtime, travel and internal jump team support," but it did not provide details.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau office hasn't been receiving complaints from its members about FSA delays, but CEO Jeffrey Missling said there are reports that drought aid requests from producers who have never before signed up for government programs might be slowing the process.

North Dakota Stockmen's Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson said the group that represents more than 3,000 cattle-ranching families believes the offices' workload "is significant because of all the steps required for processing disaster-related programs."

For example, the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which compensates ranchers for grazing losses, "will be widely used this year and has not been for many years," Ellingson said.

FSA has received nearly 3,800 applications from North Dakota ranchers for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, according to USDA.