BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - With up to one-fifth of the North Dakota land that normally would host crops possibly remaining idle this year due to flooding, state officials are pressing for crop insurance changes to provide more help for farmers and ranchers - something federal officials say is unlikely.
North Dakota has seen significant river and overland flooding this spring. Some farmers, particularly in the Souris River basin in the north-central part of the state, are still waiting to get into fields well past the time some crops should be starting to grow.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency will not have official numbers until midsummer, but Regional Director Doug Hagel said 5 million acres of unplanted land in North Dakota is a good estimate.
"I would say that's in the ballpark, definitely," he said. "We were at (a record) 3.9 million acres in 1999 and I'm looking at this year as being substantially worse than 1999."
Farmers who do not get their crops in the ground because of adverse weather can collect a "prevented planting" payment through their crop insurance, though the amount typically is much less than what they could get by growing and selling a crop. Farmers are allowed to plant cover crops to manage the soil once it dries out enough, but if they harvest them before Nov. 1, their payments are cut by 65 percent. The purpose is to deter fraud.
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, the North Dakota Bankers Association and the North Dakota Stockmen's Association - the state's largest rancher group - are asking the RMA to reduce the penalty to 30 percent or less. That would make it economical for farmers to grow a forage crop that could be used by ranchers in need.
"With the current weather patterns we are experiencing, we are likely to have a feed shortage as the summer progresses," Goehring said.
Stockmen's President Jason Schmidt, who ranches in Kidder County, said that ranchers have endured three straight harsh winters that have exhausted many feed supplies, and a change in the prevented planting policy would ease some of the worry about what the next winter will bring.
"Ranchers and farmers out there, they would like to work together and help each other," he said. "We don't want a situation where people have to sell their herds. We hope that we'll get some movement (on the request to the RMA), that they're sympathetic to what's happening out here."
Hagel said emotions don't play a role, that the RMA is bound by crop insurance contract obligations and federal policy.
"You don't make changes midstream," he said.
Hagel also said it is unlikely that the RMA will meet a request for change to help producers whose land has been swallowed by Devils Lake, which has been expanding for nearly two decades because of a string of wet years.
Farmers cannot file a prevented planting claim if their land has been inundated for more than two years in a row. Goehring, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Gov. Jack Dalrymple all have asked the RMA to provide some type of prevented planting assistance for producers in closed lake basins such as Devils Lake, where floodwaters have covered more than 160,000 acres of prime farm and pasture land.
"Some farmers have lost 95 percent of their farm and have virtually no farm income while they are still obligated to pay real estate taxes and to make mortgage payments on that inundated land," Dalrymple said after meeting with RMA Administrator William Murphy.
The North Dakota officials want the RMA to provide prevented planting coverage for Devils Lake basin land based on the level of the lake in 1999 which, at 1,446 feet above sea level, is where state water officials believe the lake would eventually level out if it rose high enough to overflow naturally into the Sheyenne River.
Dalrymple said Murphy told him he did not have the power to make a regulation change. A spokeswoman for Murphy did not immediately confirm that response on Thursday.
Murphy had said earlier in the week that prevented planting coverage is not available for chronically flooded land, but "our hearts go out to all of those affected by the flooding in all of these areas."
Hagel said the two-year rule is in place to prevent farmers from collecting crop insurance on land that clearly is no longer suitable for farming.
"Our program is designed to insure growing crops," he said.