It’s not every day that I say this, but common sense recently prevailed in Washington, D.C. Yes, you read that correctly. After two months of encouraging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to adjust its arbitrary and administratively mandated date for haying and grazing cover crops on prevent plant acres, the department recently announced that it would move up the date to September 1, for the 2019 planting season with no reduction in indemnity payments. Two months might sound like a long time for a federal agency to make a decision like this, but believe me, by Washington standards, that’s warp speed.
While arbitrary dates aren’t uncommon in the federal bureaucracy, there’s one big problem, particularly when it comes to setting one national date for practices like grazing or mechanically harvesting cover crops: Mother Nature. She doesn’t treat each state equally, so by the time November 1 rolls around, a state like Missouri, for example, might still be growing cover crops while South Dakota will have likely already experienced frost or snow, and you don’t need a green thumb to know what frost and snow do to harvest and grazing potential.
I’ve been hearing from producers about this for months – producers who’ve been facing Mother Nature’s wrath, which has prevented them from getting other, more profitable insured crops, like corn or soybeans, into the ground on time. Since this should have been an easy fix, I recently turned up the volume as I relayed producers’ concerns to the administration. My message to USDA was clear: You set this arbitrary date, so we don’t need a new law to make this happen. We just need to apply a little common sense, which, again, is exactly what eventually happened.
My office first raised this issue with USDA in early May. Following our initial outreach, I led a bipartisan group of Senate Agriculture Committee members in appealing directly to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, and shortly after our letter was sent, I made my case on the floor of the U.S. Senate too.
I recently asked USDA Deputy Secretary Steve Censky and USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey to come to my office in Washington so I could make another pitch. This time, face to face. They did, and when they asked how soon the department would need to act, I told them we were reaching the breaking point, and they needed to make a decision within a week or two. One week later, our effort paid off, and they announced they would move up the date by two months, which is a considerable amount of time in a growing season.
In Undersecretary Northey’s written response to my request, he said, “Following careful review of this date and given the unprecedented flooding and excessive rainfall across the nation, [the Risk Management Agency] has decided to adjust the date … This change will help producers better manage forage shortages caused by this year’s unseasonably wet growing season.” Credit where credit is due: USDA heard our message, and they acted – in a somewhat unprecedented way, I might add.
Nothing can ever make up for a poor growing season, but there are several things policymakers and federal agencies can do to make things less painful. USDA’s most recent announcement is a great example of how the federal government can listen, develop a plan, and act to make farming and ranching a little less stressful for folks in South Dakota and around the country who help feed the world and fuel the nation. I only wish we could spread some of this common sense to other parts of the federal government too!