Lack of Farm Bill Prolongs Angst for Ranchers


South Dakota rancher Alan Rislov didn’t inherit a farm or any livestock of his own, but he grew up wanting to be a rancher. For nearly 20 years, beginning in high school, he scraped and saved to build his own herd of cattle and calves.

Then, in October, a devastating early blizzard killed about 30 percent of his cows and 20 percent of his calves — a loss of about $100,000.

Rislov had hoped Washington would approve emergency payments for livestock producers, as it has in the past. But now that the U.S. House has left for its winter break without passing a new farm bill, it’s clear that he and other ranchers who have taken an enormous hit won’t be getting relief until at least the new year.

“This is probably the worst disaster ever as far as the cattle industry – this is one of the worst hits it’s ever taken,” said Rislov, of Philip, S.D. “And there’s absolutely nothing out there for people.”

House and Senate negotiators insist they are close to an agreement in principle that would lead to the passage of a comprehensive, five-year farm bill early next year. That agreement would include provisions offering disaster relief to ranchers like Rislov; both the House and Senate versions of the roughly $500 billion bill include them. South Dakota ranchers lost as many as 15,000 to 30,000 cattle during the blizzard that pounded the state and parts of North Dakota.

This week, the House passed an extension of the farm bill that would have continued some provisions into early 2013. But it did not contain livestock provisions and the Democratically controlled Senate has said it will not take up the bill, hoping to press forward for a longer term agreement.

Members of South Dakota’s congressional delegation said they believe an agreement is close.

“We are on track to pass a full, five-year farm bill that gives both consumers and producers the certainty they need,” said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., a member of the committee trying to merge the two bills.

Said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., “I believe conferees are very close to settling even the most contentious issues.”

But for South Dakota’s ranchers, the protracted farm bill negotiations — as close to a conclusion as they may now be — are a source of immense frustration.

“Congress has frustrated me, period, whether the farm bill or whatever it is. I don’t have a lot of respect for Congress whatever it is,” said Chuck O’Connor, a rancher in Philip.

The 76-year-old said he lost 38 cows and 52 calves during October’s blizzard, a loss he estimates at about $100,000. He said that he can weather it because he’s been ranching for years and saved money, but he worries about younger, less-established ranchers.

He said he knows other ranchers who have heavier debt loads or haven’t been doing it as long; those are the people he feels sorry for.

“I just hope they can stay in business,” he said.

Rislov, a much younger rancher, said that his losses would set him back. But he also considers himself lucky compared to others.

He is paid to ranch for someone else, so he has a steady income. And he rents pasture for his own cows. Still, he said that support from the federal government would have made him feel more secure.

“There’s a lot of people out there that lost close to everything, and then they have a land payment on top of that,” he said. “How are them guys going to keep going without a little bit of assistance?

“For me, it would help tremendously. But for them?”