Drought relief efforts included a hay lottery. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Department of Agriculture

Even in the face of dire circumstances, North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers stand firm together. The drought of 2017 took a strong and stubborn hold on much of the state, adversely affecting many farmers and ranchers, especially those in the western portion.

Over one-third of North Dakota experienced extreme drought and 95 percent of the state was considered at least abnormally dry.

But as steadfast as the harsh conditions were from early spring into summer, the responses of help were even more pronounced. The extreme droughts that year may have caused upheaval and loss in the agriculture industry, but even more so, they brought to light the sense of neighbors helping neighbors.

“There was a lot of community support,” says Paul Sproule, a Grand Forks farmer who helped lead the effort to assist ranchers by providing hay from the northeastern region of North Dakota that wasn’t directly impacted by the drought. “It was just a matter of people in need who didn’t have anything. We had it, and it’s a vital resource. I just felt led to help them out. When you’re in need, you’re in need.”

Photo courtesy of North Dakota Department of Agriculture

A Simple Phone Call

Sproule Farms, located in the fertile Red River Valley, participates in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that pays landowners to plant grass and other vegetation on environmentally sensitive sections of their land. Word got out that Sproule was involved in CRP, and he was soon hauling hay for feed to those ranchers in need.

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“It all started with a phone call,” Sproule says. “It was from a lady who has livestock out in the western part of the state. I have no idea how she got my number. But she said, ‘I’ve heard you have some CRP (land). Would you be willing to let me come and hay it? We’ll pay you for it.’ … I told her, ‘You can’t pay me for it, I’ll give it to you.’

“The story of my conversation with the lady got out, probably through social media,” Sproule says. “It just kind of created a movement, which was very good.”

Sproule ultimately worked with more than 20 ranchers, helping to coordinate the hauling of much-needed hay to western ranchers who would have seriously struggled without it.

“Hats off to our local FSA (Farm Service Agency) officer,” Sproule adds. “They worked very quickly to get things turned around.”

Others in the unaffected areas of the state pitched in as well, including the Farm Rescue organization.

Photo courtesy of North Dakota Department of Agriculture

Operation Hay Lift

Farm Rescue is a nonprofit that helps family farms and ranches during times of crises such as injury, illness or natural disasters, providing planting, haying, harvesting, livestock feeding assistance, and commodity and hay hauling.

Through its program known as Operation Hay Lift, Farm Rescue ended up helping 152 families affected by the drought who also had a major injury or illness. From July 2017 through April 2018, the organization hauled 227 truckloads and 8,300 tons of hay over 170,000 miles from not only North Dakota, but also from Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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To get the word out, Farm Rescue sent press releases to media outlets across the state and used social media.

“When we put the press release out, I knew we would get applications, but I didn’t quite anticipate how many we would get in very short order,” says Bill Gross, president and founder of Farm Rescue. “Once the word got out, we got hundreds and hundreds of applications.”

The effort took a financial toll on the nonprofit, but Gross says it was worth it.

“If these ranchers didn’t get their hay for their cattle, it would obviously affect their livelihood and they’d have to sell off their herd or portions of their herd,” Gross says. “There would be a ripple effect economically.

“We felt it was very, very important to help these rural communities to carry out this operation – not just help the rancher in need but the communities as well.”

Farm Rescue continues to accept financial donations to help offset the cost of Operation Hay Lift. Checks can be mailed to Farm Rescue, P.O. Box 28, Horace, ND 58047, or click here to make an online donation.

Paul Sproule, with his daughters, was instrumental in leading the effort to assist struggling ranchers with hay. Photo by Steve Woit/Farm Flavor Media

State Efforts for Drought Relief

State agencies also helped in the drought relief effort. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture (NDDA) opened a drought hotline and interactive map; helped organize a hay lottery with the North Dakota State University Agriculture Experiment Station; and coordinated a $1.5 million hay transportation assistance program that reimbursed eligible producers for a portion of hay transportation expenses.

Other state programs and actions included: a water supply assistance program for livestock producers; waivers for various restrictions for drivers of commercial vehicles and farm licensed vehicles transporting hay, water and livestock; lifting of hauling permit fees; drought loan programs and more.


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