HENRY C. JACKSON Associated Press WASHINGTON - As Congress negotiates a compromise over the farm bill, the most important thing for South Dakota and its beleaguered livestock industry isn't any one provision, but rather, passing any sort of bill to restore the help for farmers and ranchers that expired this fall.
Congress last enacted a farm bill in 2008, but it expired in September 2012 and was later extended through September of this year. As a result, key provisions protecting livestock producers were not in place when a devastating blizzard pounded South Dakota in early October. The unusual, early-in-the season storm dropped up to 4 feet of snow in parts of the state, catching ranchers flatfooted. Images of dead, trapped cattle in the snow brought home the storm's devastating impact. State officials have estimated a loss of as many as 15,000 to 30,000 cattle in the Oct. 4-5 storm. Had a farm bill been in place, those ranchers would have access to help from the federal government through a livestock disaster program. But with none on the books, one of South Dakota's largest industries has had limited help as it tries to recover. "The way (the livestock) died was simply not insurable," said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. "That's why these types of programs are so important." Noem is at the center of farm bill negotiations as an appointed member of the committee trying to reconcile differences between two different versions of the bill. One was passed by the GOP-controlled House, the other by the Democratic-led Senate. The livestock disaster program isn't particularly controversial: Both the House and Senate versions contain provisions for livestock producers. But there are serious differences between the bills on other issues, particularly funding for food stamps. Until those issues are resolved, there is no relief for ranchers. Noem said the wrenching images that emerged from South Dakota have had one positive effect - they've focused many lawmakers on the task of crafting a compromise. "I think it helped give us a sense of urgency for why a farm bill is so important," she said. "I've been pushing for this for two years, but that blizzard hitting South Dakota showed the rest of the members what can happen and what a tragic situation you have when we have no permanent programs in place." Other members of South Dakota's delegation have joined Noem in pushing for a deal, though she is the only one who is in direct negotiations. All have emphasized the importance of a quick resolution. Sen. John Thune, a member of the Senate's Republican leadership, prodded House Republicans, writing a letter to Speaker John Boehner stressing the importance of moving quickly on the farm bill after the blizzard hit South Dakota. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson took to the Senate floor noting the outpouring of support for ranchers from in and out of South Dakota. However, he lamented that one place where response to the tragedy fell short was with the federal government. "Because of the government shutdown, producers can't rely on their FSA offices for assistance," Johnson said. "And since Congress hasn't finished a farm bill, West River ranchers have to wait for disaster assistance." Beyond restoring protections for livestock producers, the wide-ranging farm bill contains a number of pieces that are important to South Dakotans. There is language that would keep the basic framework of crop insurance in place, a key piece for farmers. Both the House and Senate bills provide funding for academic agricultural research. And there are provisions designed to protect native soil and support land conservation. Noem said negotiations on the farm bill are ongoing and this week included meetings among staff on both sides. She said everyone involved realizes how important it is to pass legislation before the end of the year. "We recognize that we need to get this done," she said.