By Sen. John Thune
South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers are as smart and hardworking as they come. For many of them, the work they do to help feed the world is part of their identity – it’s what makes them tick. Their job isn’t exactly a typical nine-to-five gig, though. If you ask them, the work never really ends. Early mornings. Late evenings. Weekends. Holidays. Extreme weather. There are no days off. It’s this unique way of life and its never-ending challenges that gives farmers and ranchers such an interesting perspective when it comes to understanding and helping develop the federal policy that affects their industry.
No one knows agriculture policy and what it needs better than they do, which is why with their help, for the last 14 months, I’ve been introducing multiple legislative proposals that would update and modify several titles of the farm bill. Many of these legislative ideas were directly inspired by the feedback I received from folks in South Dakota’s agriculture community. I take their advice seriously and appreciate that they’re always willing to engage and provide thoughtful advice to me and my staff.
Throughout this farm bill rollout, I’ve hosted several events with South Dakota farmers and ranchers to keep this conversation going. In April, at an event in Rapid City, I heard from several ranchers who were concerned by inaccurate and inconsistent precipitation data and drought designations. While not directly related to the farm bill, after learning more about it, their concerns were well-founded.
For example, early this spring, after last year’s drought in West River, the U.S. Forest Service determined that its federal grasslands had been too dry, and as a result, the stocking rates needed to be reduced. The U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly comprehensive assessment of rainfall and soil moisture conditions throughout the country that’s used to determine when and where drought-related assistance is needed, classified those same areas as not dry enough for ranchers to be eligible for certain grazing loss disaster and insurance assistance. The two U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program determinations were at odds with one another and, understandably, led to confusion and frustration.
After hearing these concerns, I returned to Washington and put pen to paper. I knew there had to be a way to make the Drought Monitor a more accurate and effective tool for both members of the agriculture community and policymakers.
As a result, I introduced a pair of bills that I think would help address the issues these ranchers recently raised by ensuring that USDA uses accurate and consistent data in administering programs that are similarly designed to help the agriculture community.
The Improved Soil Moisture and Precipitation Monitoring Act of 2018 would provide tools and direction to USDA to help improve the accuracy of the Drought Monitor. My bill would, among other things, require all of the agencies within USDA that use precipitation data to determine livestock grazing loss assistance and stocking rates to coordinate with one another. This streamlined approach is a pretty common-sense idea, if you ask me.
I also introduced a bill that would strengthen and improve the Cooperative Observer Program (COOP) of the National Weather Service (NWS). The Commerce Committee, which I chair, has jurisdiction over NWS, among many other federal agencies. The bill would support state-coordinated programs that provide data for the Drought Monitor and other weather programs. COOP is a volunteer-run organization and is the nation’s largest and oldest weather network. The information they collect can be very helpful in learning more about weather patterns and developing federal policy.
I’m continually thankful for everything South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers do for our communities and can say with certainty that these are not the first, nor will they be the last pieces of legislation that move through the halls of Congress thanks to the suggestions, input, and support from folks throughout the state. Not surprisingly, and this is a great example, most of the truly good ideas come from far outside of the Washington Beltway!