Ranchers dispute Risk Management Agency decisionWritten by Christy Hemken
One hundred eight Johnson County ranchers bought rangeland crop insurance through RMA’s Group Risk Plan (GRP), but, because of privacy rules, only 40 were located to participate in the appeal.
“We hope that if they do overturn the decision and decide to give everyone the percentage difference, that it will be countywide,” says Cheri Graves of the Red Fork Ranch west of Kaycee. “It would make sense, but we don’t know that for certain.”
Graves led the appeal, along with Karen Kithas of the Blue Creek Ranch, also west of Kaycee, and Sunny Taylor of the Flying Diamond, which has land west of Kaycee and in southern Johnson County.
For the 2005 insurance year the county’s ranchers weren’t paid anything and Kithas appealed that first year on her own and says there was much more information and backup for the year 2006.
“We feel that something is wrong with this pilot insurance program,” says Kithas. “We were paid the 74 percent loss and we feel we’re entitled to a 90 percent loss payment because all of the experts in our area from the Farm Services Agency, the University of Wyoming and the Natural Resources Conservation Service all said we had at least a 90 percent loss.”
“When we got our notices last year and they weren’t 90 percent - which we were sure we were going to get because we all had such bad feed crops - we decided we’d appeal as a group,” says Taylor. “We didn’t feel many of our ranchers would be able to afford the time to appeal on their own.”
In the rangeland crop insurance program, RMA determines how much insurance will be paid out according to how much dryland hay the National Ag Statistics Service (NASS) reports has been harvested in a participating county, of which there are 10 in Wyoming.
“We feel those surveys don’t ask the right questions and that’s it’s confusing to ranchers when they go to fill out the surveys,” says Kithas. “They don’t give enough detail on what’s considered irrigated and non-irrigated ground. We felt a lot of people were confused and the information the statistics survey got was incorrect.”
“The Wyoming NASS office said somebody in Johnson County put up 900 tons of dryland hay in 2006,” says Kithas.
“We had no hay crop, and no grazing in 2006,” says Taylor. “The problem with insuring forage and grassland is there’s no way to measure them. The closest thing to use is dryland hay. We understood the dryland hay was just the rainwater growing the hay, but we were wrong. Wyoming NASS takes their yield from a 30-year average of any hay that has not been irrigated in the last year. You can’t expect a 30-year average to help out for one year.”
“The other problem with the program was 47 percent of the people that were sent surveys for NASS are people that made $10,000 or less on ag,” continued Taylor. “They didn’t really understand what they were filling out.”
Although they did get an insurance payment, Kithas says she and the ranchers in her area felt they were entitled to more. “Sheridan County was paid a 90 percent loss and we felt since we were on the east slope of the Big Horns we should get it as well.”
“We felt if they had used the local people, like from FSA, their findings would have been different,” she adds.
To appeal the decision, two hearing officers listened to the rancher’s petition on Feb. 27 along with two RMA representatives. “The hearing officers from National Appeals Division seemed to be very concerned and I was really impressed by them,” says Kithas. “They asked a lot of good questions and they listened to us and made good comments.”
Ag Program Coordinator for the Wyoming Dept. of Ag Justin Williams assisted the ranchers in their case, helping them to organize their information and to give them advice on how to present the most effective case in the hearing.
“He did the talking for us and helped us put things in order chronologically and in order of importance and he helped us set up the agenda for the hearing and who should speak and on what,” says Kithas of Williams’ assistance in their hearing.
If this appeal isn’t granted, the ranchers do have one more available to them, but Taylor says they don’t know if they’ll take their case through a second appeal.
The hearing officers now have 30 days to rule on the case. In the meantime, many Johnson County ranchers have left the rangeland crop insurance program in favor of another offered by RMA that is based upon vegetative index, rather than survey statistics, for their 2008 growing season.
“Not everybody in Wyoming has switched over, because in some counties the insurance was working,” says Graves. “We still have yet to see what will happen for 2007. It was a better year than 2006 and I would say, if they pay anything, it would probably be a fairly low percentage. It was a better year, but still a drought year.”