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U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., on Friday, Dec. 27, in Fargo discusses how federal disaster funds will be funneled through sugar beet cooperatives to the producers who own the co-op. (Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service)

Getting federal aid to farmers quickly is key, ag leaders say

FARGO — U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., huddled with farm group leaders in Fargo to look ahead to implementing disaster payments and potential crop insurance issue nuances to help get past weather disasters that started in 2018, worsened in 2019, and could linger into 2020.

“The idea is to make sure these things work,” Hoeven said Friday, Dec. 27, taking testimony from about 20 commodity and farm group leaders.

Federal payments have had a huge impact on farmers’ bottom lines in 2019, with poor cropping conditions against the background of trade disruptions.

Brad Thykeson, state executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, says the Market Facilitation Program, which compensates farmers for impacts of the trade wars in China and other places, is expected to pay $714 million to North Dakota producers in the 2019 crop year. About 75% of that $714 million has been paid; the third MFP payment, representing the last 25%, has not yet been made and no announcement has been made on whether it will be paid.

Hoeven received copious thanks from officials for a number of wins from the past year:

  • Adding $1.5 billion into disaster assistance, on top of the $3 billion in disaster assistance approved by Congress in May. Hoeven is the chairman of the agriculture subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

  • Requiring that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue include “sugar cooperatives” eligible for disaster payments. Tom Astrup, president and chief executive officer of American Crystal Sugar Co. of Moorhead, Minn., as well as officials from Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D., described that 2019 had been their worst harvest ever, and that the disaster payments that they will be responsible for getting into the hands of producers will be essential for keeping farming operations financially healthier. Hoeven said he would set up meetings between sugar officials and USDA officials to make sure the unusual payment scheme — going through co-ops instead of directly to farmers — will be accomplished smoothly and equitably.

  • Navigating 2019’s poor quality in corn, cereal grains, sugar beets and sunflowers for the purpose of federal disaster benefits, rather than just yield. Such benefits, distributed by FSA, are calculated based on crop insurance losses, a figure generated by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency.

  • Funding numerous agricultural research priorities, including $15 million for research on fusarium head blight, also known as scab disease, as well as funds for potato research, some of which could be spent in the USDA’s research facility at East Grand Forks, Minn.

  • Considering whether potato farmers, who often don’t buy crop insurance based on the perceived expense, should be paid a payment similar to the federal WHIP-plus disaster payment.

Donovan Johnson, of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, said that farmers don’t like the idea that to get a WHIP-plus payment (named initially as Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program, expanded to certain ag disasters with the “plus”), those self-insuring farmers then are forced to “pay back” the disaster payment by buying crop insurance in the subsequent two years.

Scott Tewksbury, president and chief executive of Heartland State Bank in Edgeley, representing the state’s independent bankers, urged Hoeven that time is of the essence in getting money into the hands of producers. Hoeven said he was pleased about the prospect of a trade agreement in early January between the U.S. and China, but Tewskbury and others said the timing is urgent.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring urged farmers not to be too hasty in signing off on a crop insurance settlement, as crop quality assessment and harvest remain unfinished. But Scott Monke, first vice president of the U.S. Durum Growers from New England, N.D., said farmers can wait only so long to settle with insurance companies as lenders become “itchy” for repayment.

In addition to crop farmers, Goehring said that there are many counties in North Dakota where livestock producers have only a 60-day supply of feed, and in four counties, producers may not even have that. He noted that some producers have standing crops in the field and instead of being able to use that as livestock feed, will have to spend more money on feed.