Ranchers decry inaccuracy of federal drought data

Seth Tupper Rapid City Journal
Farm Forum

Linda Gilbert ranches near Buffalo in northwestern South Dakota, but she said her insurance benefits during a drought year depend partly on conditions more than 50 miles away in Union Center and in Baker, Mont., and Scranton, N.D.

Those are the locations of the nearest weather stations operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Gilbert said, so the data from those stations is used to help determine her eligibility for benefits from the federal Pasture, Rangeland, Forage insurance program.

“It’s not exactly accurate,” she said.

Gilbert was among about a dozen people who participated in a roundtable discussion on April 4 with U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., at Western Dakota Technical Institute in Rapid City. The topic was the next congressional farm bill, which is being drafted now.

Gilbert said there are other weather stations closer to her ranch, including a station operated by South Dakota State University, but none of that other data is accepted by the Pasture, Rangeland, Forage insurance program.

Mark Tubbs, who ranches on the plains near Edgemont in southwestern South Dakota, said some of the data used to determine drought severity in his area comes from 40 miles away in Custer.

“It’s completely knot-headed,” Tubbs said.

Silvia Christen, executive director of the Rapid City-based South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said she tried to help solve the problem by encouraging more of her members to collect data for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, which feeds data to a variety of entities including some federal agencies. But Christen said she was later told that some U.S. Department of Agriculture programs accept data from the network, while others do not.

Last summer, Christen said, the varying data sources caused some federal grazing land to be classified as insufficiently dry for emergency assistance, even as another federal agency deemed the same land to be so dry that grazing restrictions were imposed.

“Well, which is it?” Christen said.

Afterward, Thune called the situation a typical example of federal bureaucracies each having their own jurisdictions and operating “multiple, duplicative and redundant systems.”

“There’s got to be a better way to be more comprehensive and more consistent,” he said. “So we’ll take a look at it.”

Numerous other topics were discussed during the roundtable session. Thune, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, has released nine proposals for the next farm bill. The current farm bill expires at the end of September.