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WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) today questioned Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue regarding the USDA’s efforts to aid Kansans working to recover from the devastating wildfires in the southwestern part of the state earlier this year during a Senate Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee hearing.

Click here to watch the hearing. Highlights can be found below.

Sen. Moran (0:52): “First of all I want to thank Mr. Young. In your absence, before you were confirmed, he was the acting secretary. He responded forthwith to concerns that I had about fires in Kansas. We had a number of counties significantly devastated by wildfires. Clark County in particular, nearly all of the county was burned. I think the number is 700,000 acres in Kansas were burned by wildfires. Ironically, sadly, two weeks later the rains come.”

Sec. Perdue (1:28): “Snow.”

Sen. Moran (1:29): “Snow came. The good news is that you saw green begin to appear in places that were black just a few days before. It will take a long time, decades, perhaps generations, for a recovery to occur. There are three areas that I wanted to highlight for you in regard to the federal government’s response to those fires. First of all, we’ve had some staffing issues in FSA offices where the workload increased dramatically. And recently there has been approval for two additional positions at the FSA county office in Clark County. We are pleased with that and anxious for those positions to be filled, and appreciate the restructuring in order to meet the current demands for FSA services.”

Sen. Moran (2:15): “Three areas of concern. The emergency conservation program. This generally is a way in which ranchers can be compensated for loss of fencing. We had fire previously in the adjoining county, Barber County, the so-called Anderson Creek fire. It took a year for ranchers to actually be compensated for the loss of their fence. It was a year before the payments began. Here’s the problem with the program, I would welcome your help: there is no advance payment for that disaster. You get your fence rebuilt and then you submit the bill. Here’s something that strikes me as nearly impossible to handle – when you lose your cattle, you’ve lost your collateral. How do you go to the bank and borrow money to build fence when you have little or no collateral to back up that loan? This program in my view needs to be changed - with your help - in which it is like other disaster payments. It is a payment that occurs at the time of the disaster, the money then used to rebuild, in this case the fence. We were able with the help of Mr. Young to get the commitment of USDA that the payments could occur over a period of time in stages, so you could fix part of your fence and submit the bill, and that’s a step in the right direction. It’s an improvement and we appreciate the flexibility that was demonstrated in that response. But the program doesn’t work… the way it should for a disaster. So I would encourage you to work with me and others to see if we can’t alter the way that program works.”

Sen. Moran (3:51): “The second part, and I think we’ve been assured at least there’s flexibility in regard to the specifications of the kind of fence. Kansas is also an oil and gas producing state and so we have oilfield pipe. It’s a way you can build fences and it’s much cheaper than buying new fencing. Many ranchers would take that option. We believe we have the approval of USDA to allow that to happen, we’ve received those assurances. But what I need from you is if there are issues that come up, we need your common sense, your Georgia background, to say we’re not – this isn’t about the actual specifications, this is about whether you’re building a good fence. I don’t know a single rancher in Kansas who wants to build a fence that won’t last generations. That’s the kind of fence that was destroyed in the fire, was fence that had been there for 70, 80, a hundred years. So I need your cooperation as those issues arise to step in and help us make certain that common sense prevails.”

Sen. Moran (4:47): “And then finally, payment limitations under the livestock indemnity program. This is where you might actually get compensated for your loss of cattle… The Kansas Livestock Association estimates that there’s been 4,000 and 8,000 head of cattle that died in this fire. The payment limitation is such that it is per… business organization, farm organization, and I think farmers over time have figured out how to organize their farming operation as a result of the laws related to payment limitations. Ranchers have never thought about this and so almost without exception every one of our livestock producers is limited by the payment limitation. And we need to make certain that there is a way in which brothers and fathers, and sons and daughters who have not organized their ranching operation in a way to satisfy payment limitations issues are not harmed. A $125,000 payment limitation does not go very far with the loss of up to 8,000 cattle.”

Sen. Moran (5:53): “So those are three areas I wanted to highlight for you. Some of what I’m saying is complimentary, the other is a forewarning that we’ll be knocking at your door asking for your assistance, guidance, direction and leadership in making certain that a terrible situation is handled as best we can with common sense and compassion.”

Sec. Perdue (6:16): “Well I hope that I would demonstrate to you and to the producers that are affected not only in Kansas but across the country, common sense and compassion. Those are two virtues that I value very much… The fencing was a silly kind of thing and I think that can be easily determined. The payment limitations on the livestock indemnity program, I’m not sure if those are statutory in the farm bill, or if there’s any flexibility there. I’ll get the answer to that question… I do understand certainly the business organization structure that you’ve talked about, and many of the production agricultures have taken that step. And your producers could do that easily. I think it would be a matter of how we determine what those limitations are in light of the fact that those are not legal separations. I’ll be happy to talk with you about what a real solution is on that. Certainly the reimbursement on the fencing on the ECP on those kinds of things from a reimbursement standpoint, we know that fencing is very expensive and you’re right, sometimes when you’re wiped out you don’t really have cash or collateral to go borrow to create that. So I’ll explore that as well. I appreciate Acting Secretary Young in giving the flexibility. What I will commit to you: this USDA will implement all the flexibility, these kind of programs and these sort of disaster places that we have under the statute, and if we don’t feel like they are optimal from a statutory perspective, we’ll inform you of that and ask you to correct that in the next farm bill.”

Sen. Moran (8:06): “I thank you for your flexibility and I commit to you that I’ll work with you to accomplish those goals.”