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Should Uncle Sam Bail Us Out of Drought?

By   /  October 8, 2018  /  4 Comments

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It was a very difficult summer. We suffered through more 90-degree days than any year in history. It was just plain hot and dry, the worst season that anyone around here could remember.

Oh, that was way back in 2017.

2018, of course, was even worse. Month upon month with no rain. Baking hot days for weeks at a time. In fact, the summer of ’18 was so bad that the USDA declared Linn County a Natural Disaster Area, adding my neighborhood to a long list of weather-scorched places across America.

This designation was enough to send a ripple of joy through the countryside, as ranchers were now free to sign up for emergency drought payments, payments based upon how many cattle or how many acres you manage. The bigger your operation, the greater your disaster, so the bigger your relief check. Ranchers made the sign of the cross and sent up a chorus of thanks, because no matter how difficult the markets or the weather, at least they had some good news: the USDA was going to send them some cash to help tide them over.

Finally, someone back in Washington had a good idea.

Perhaps I should go ahead and say it right now: I don’t think this is a good idea. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea, and very poor policy.

Several years back I read a book about disasters that made a huge impression on me. In “Deep Survival,” author Laurence Gonzales tries to answer a simple question: when disaster strikes, (e.g. plane crashes, avalanches, ship wrecks,) why do some people survive and others perish? After some fairly exhaustive research, Gonzales reduces his findings to three simple words: Perceive, Plan and Act.

Perceive:

Even in times of extreme peril, some people simply cannot or will not admit that their situation has changed, that the conditions they are operating under are now new and different. In fact, many people simply refuse to acknowledge that anything is wrong. In a disaster situation, most of these people die.

Plan:

To survive, those folks that have perceived the danger they are in must take the next step of forming a Plan, a strategy for dealing with the problems they face. Often, a successful plan is the result of group thinking, calling on the experience and expertise of several people in the group.

Act:

Even after people have recognized the danger they face and developed a plan to overcome the problems, it is critical that the plan actually be instituted; action must be taken.

The failure to successfully complete any one of these steps typically results in failure, and in many cases death. Surviving a disaster without taking these steps relies strictly on luck: maybe someone will come and save you from the sharks or the snow or the fire. Or the drought.

Following the summer of 2017 I was hopeful, expecting a return to our normal seasonal weather pattern. But by early May of this year I began seeing signs that we were entering into another summer of drought. The weather was bad and the predictions worse. There were forecasts of drought. I reviewed my Drought Plan and began making a list of actions to take.

Fundamentally, successful drought planning involves only one major action: reduce stocking. In mid-May I canceled a delivery of custom grazing cattle. On June 1, I made plans to ship out our yearling cattle several weeks early. We began marketing every month, reducing our herd by 10 percent, then 25 percent, then 33 percent. We weaned calves early and sold off some pretty good cows. This week, as people are signing up for drought payments, we are selling off some more cattle. We still have some feed. It’s not great, but our remaining cattle will not starve.

I am determined and convinced of several things: we will survive this drought. We will adapt. We will manage. We will Perceive, Plan and Act. And we will not be applying for Disaster Relief payments.

Drought is a recurring (and apparently ever-more frequent) reality that ranchers need to deal with. And that means manage. Since we know with absolute certainty that another drought is coming (or that this current one is continuing), shouldn’t a smart manager devise a plan to deal with that reality? And in fact, isn’t that the fundamental job of a manager: to be watchful, to recognize changes in the world around us, to plan out how to overcome those changes and then to take action?

In the face of future drought, it is the responsibility of every rancher and ranch manager to develop a Drought Management Plan to deal with that problem. Hoping and praying that things will simply get bad enough that the government will send a relief check is piss-poor management. From the government’s side, rewarding people for not making plans and taking actions is simply a terrible waste of taxpayer money, as it fails to really change anything. At best, it is a Band-Aid on a serious long-term problem. Not only that, paying subsidies to people for poor performance exacerbates the problems of agriculture by further distorting the value of agricultural land.

I realize that mine is a minority opinion, and perhaps a not very popular one. That’s fine. But I have to wonder what would happen if producers who are accepting drought payments would take a sliver of that cash and pay for a workshop or a consultant to help them design a functional Drought Management Plan.

Progress, I’d predict. Or perhaps the government could simply insist that drought payments be predicated on a significant reduction in livestock numbers. Something draconian, like 50 percent.

But better yet, I would ask the USDA to please just stop sending money.

Thoughts? Share them in the comments below. Click over here for Kathy’s thoughts on why this conversation might be important.

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  • Published: 2 months ago on October 8, 2018
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  • Last Modified: October 8, 2018 @ 2:16 pm
  • Filed Under: Consider This

About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

4 Comments

  1. Joel Ham says:

    Good article, John. We , in agriculture have got to get away from the subsidy mentality. We are, in effect, sending the message that private property ownership does not work, and that we need the government to feed our cows, clear our land , lay water lines, build fences, guarantee insurance, etc. But at the same time, we want to keep our private property rights. You can’t have both. With ownership comes responsibility.

  2. Greg Judy says:

    John,

    You hit the nail on the head with your article, good job. There are fewer folks today that will accept responsibility for the situation that they are in. There have always been droughts in the past and they seem to be more common now.

    I agree that the government payment program rewards folks that do not think or manage their operation when faced with a difficult situation. The only thing subsidies do is train you not to think, the government will always bail you out. No need for planning or change.

    New Zealand many years ago discontinued all farm subsidies overnight. The farmers that were dependent on government payments to make a living ceased to exist. The farmers that adapted and planned for profitability excelled.

    With our current twenty trillion dollar national debt, we really don’t have the money to be tossing away on farm subsidies that make the problems even worse.

  3. Paul Nehring says:

    I appreciate you taking a stand and your willingness to write about it, as well as OnPasture for publishing it.
    When we encourage stupidity by subsidizing it, we just get more of it, which ultimately weakens the character, creativity and resolve of our communities.
    There are times for disaster payments to communities affected by the out of the ordinary cataclysm, but drought, especially in the arid West is almost the norm.

  4. Don Keener says:

    I agree with you 100% on the drought payments, they are rewarding bad behavior just like most welfare payments. In Texas it is more common than not to have months of 100+ degree days with very little rain in site. I’ve survived them without having to decrease my herd by burning thorns on cactus and buying cheaper feed from the feedlot and decreasing the amount fed to them. When you sell your cows you are going to have to really dig into your pockets to replace them when the rains return. Most will tell you that you can’t feed your way out of a drought, but depending on the length of it you may be able to minimize the impact. As part of your research you can find cheaper sources of feed besides those I’ve mentioned. We have brewers grains and they are always a weed or two. Good article!

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