WASHINGTON (AP) — Gary Cammack wondered if his state's ranching community could recover.
An early-season blizzard had just pounded South Dakota, and no one had seen such devastation. Cammack, a Republican state representative and a rancher, feared for both his community and his livelihood — his family lost some 120 animals, worth roughly $144,000, in the October storm. Just next door, his neighbor lost as many as 690 animals, and losses for some ranches approached $1 million.
"It was mind-boggling," he said of the state's losses.
Worse, there was no avenue to seek relief. Such catastrophic losses are normally covered by emergency programs in the federal farm bill, but the bill had expired as Congress struggled to reconcile House and Senate versions.
That changed this past week as the U.S. Department of Agriculture moved quickly to restart a series of disaster and indemnity programs that cover losses for ranchers and farmers. Applications began for various programs through USDA beginning on April 15. They cover losses suffered from the time the programs expired in late 2011 to now.
The losses by ranchers in South Dakota and to a lesser extent North Dakota may have drawn the most attention last fall. But the programs reinstated by USDA will help ranchers and farmers who have suffered losses throughout the country, including many who have suffered under persistent drought. That includes many states in the southern Plains like Texas, which saw severe drought in 2011 and 2012, and California, which is still in the grips of a drought.
USDA's ability to get the disaster programs up and running has impressed politicians and ranchers, not to mention rancher-politician hybrids like Cammack.
"As the federal government goes, this whole thing has happened at lightning speed," he said.
The last time a farm bill was enacted, in 2008, it took more than a year to re-establish the disaster programs and begin taking applicants. This time, USDA has succeeded at its goal of taking applications within 60 days of the farm bill becoming law. According to the USDA, applications have been going smoothly across the country.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has promoted the program in recent days, trying to ensure that those eligible know what information they need to provide. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said USDA used the time while Congress debated a new farm bill to prepare the programs, which were never in jeopardy in negotiations, to make sure that they were ready to move quickly when Congress passed the bill.
He said lawmakers and President Barack Obama, who directed Vilsack to expedite the program as well, kept pressure on the agency to succeed at speeding up the process.
"These poor folks had to wait for almost three years to get help and assistance," Vilsack said of farmers and ranchers. "There were extraordinary droughts in 2012, massive snowstorms in 2013, this has really put a lot of stress on our producers. So this had to be a priority."
Members of South Dakota's congressional delegation, which pressed Vilsack to move quickly, said they were pleased to see the program up and running.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. noted that producers who suffered during the blizzard and "producers hit by the 2012 drought and other natural disasters" would soon get "much needed relief." Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said she was also pleased at how quickly the program was back up and running.
The programs will come as welcome relief in South Dakota and parts of North Dakota that were battered by the Oct. 4-5 blizzard. An estimated 43,000 cattle and other livestock were killed during the storm.
With no avenue to seek relief, many ranchers have struggled to continue, Cammack said. He planned to use his own experience applying for relief to help constituents understand the process.
"I'm in a position where I'm in contact with a lot of folks and I can be of help for information, documentation, etc. so they can get it right on the first try," he said.
He said it was impossible to understate the importance of restoring the program, and estimated it might improve the recovery time in the area by as much as 10 years.
"You're talking about ranches that have spent decades and decades building equity in the ranch and building equity in the cow herd," he said. "What happens in a deal like this is that the cattle are lost and they might have spent generations paying off the ranch."
Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, predicted instead that ranchers could get assistance within a couple of weeks.