Pawlenty to seek disaster declaration

By Matt Perkins

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Tuesday that he will be asking the federal government for an agricultural disaster declaration for drought-stricken counties in Minnesota.

Pawlenty took the first step in the declaration process by requesting a formal county-by-county assessment of crop damage, which was to be completed by Thursday.

A disaster declaration from the federal government would mean any county that saw 30 percent crop loss or more would be eligible for multiple forms of financial assistance.

Ron Hourscht, whose Pike Creek Township farm Pawlenty toured, said his corn and alfalfa crops are suffering from the lack of rain.

“I think the one past disaster year that stands out in my mind was 1967,” he said. “And although I would say this year is a bit better, it’s not by a whole lot.”

Morrison County’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) was one of the first county agencies to submit crop loss statistics to the state, and has since updated its numbers. It is estimated that the county’s corn is suffering a 50 percent loss, soy beans 30, grazing and pasture 40, alfalfa 35, grass and hay 40 and oats and small grains 35 percent.

But, ironically, the drought is not widespread enough to impact corn prices as a whole, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson said.

“It’s been extremely discouraging to see the weather come through and miss us,” Morrison County FSA Executive Director Darrell Larsen said. “Especially when it’s not just coming in from the west and missing us north or missing us south, but wrapping around us and hitting everyone but us.”

Morrison County is expected to be one of 10 or more counties in Minnesota to be declared eligible for low interest federal loans because of rainfall percentages, Hugoson said.

“Throughout the state we are seeing escalating problems because of the fact that last year we suffered from dry conditions as well,” he said. “This year’s drought is even more severe because it comes on the heels of last year’s drought.”

Hourscht said he managed to produce more than 100 bushels of corn per acre last season, while this year his hopes are set at 10 bushels per acre.

Such hopes are depressing for a man who wanted to produce enough feed for his 85 cow dairy business.

“We’re not worried as much about the quantity as we are the quality when it comes to dairy,” Hourscht said. “But this kind of drought impacts everyone.”

He said his crop insurance will act as a safeguard this season, but a disaster declaration would mean additional avenues for receiving financial relief.

Low-cost loans will be offered by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) no matter what, said Pawlenty, but the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) State Emergency Board’s decision will determine federal loan availability.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., also sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns Wednesday, requesting the USDA expedite its consideration process.

Pawlenty suggested that federal loan dollars might be given on a “sliding scale,” with those farmers having crop insurance receiving more federal funding than those without.

“We want to assure farmers that we are keeping an eye on this,” Pawlenty said. “We’ll scratch our brains to see what we can do with state programs that already exist.”

Last year, the governor declared 36 counties disaster areas due to drought.

Pawlenty and Hugoson also emphasized that although corn crop production has been damaged by the drought for much of central Minnesota, the livestock producers cannot be overlooked.

Livestock producers experience hay shortages when animals are unable to adequately graze on traditional pasture lands. This has prompted the MDA to work with the University of Minnesota Extension Services to revitalize the “Hay List Hot-line and Web site,” which offers livestock producers help in finding pastures to rent or hay to purchase.

Statistically, state officials point to a three degree increase in average temperature for central Minnesota combined with 0.17 inches of rain in June as examples of the area’s “severe drought.”

“This is going to total into several millions of dollars worth of lost crop revenue,” Larsen said.

He went on to say that in the month of May, the area received 74 percent of its normal rainfall, with June receiving 41 percent and July only 19 percent of its typical rainfall.

But Larsen agreed with several other area farmers who were in attendance Tuesday in stating that Morrison County farmers are a unique breed.

“The thing about our farmers is that you don’t ever hear them complain,” Morrison County Commissioner Gene Young said. “They take it in stride and keep on truckin’.”

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