Mark McStay watched as fire raced across his grazing land in northern Moffat County last summer.
Despite his efforts and those of firefighters, much of the land he used for grazing his cattle was burned to bare dirt, no longer able to support livestock.
He faced serious hardship, and he was not alone.
Moffat County farmers and ranchers had a difficult 2006. Portions of the county suffered a 50 to 100 percent loss of grazing pastures due to drought, some wheat production was cut as low as 2 bushels per acre, and a fire consumed approximately 12,000 acres of crops and grazing land.
One saving factor for some of those affected was the previous year's purchase of Non-Assured Program insurance from the Farm Service Agency, offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"What the Red Cross does for disasters for people, the Farm Service Agency does for agricultural in the time of need," said Phyllis Lake, acting executive director for Farm Services Agency in Moffat County. "Our job is to administer Congress-mandated farm programs."
The NAP insurance program began in 2002 with the introduction of a new farm bill before the U.S. Congress. To qualify, farmers, ranchers and landowners must own or lease agriculture property used for hay, grass seed, grazing or other eligible crops. The cost is $100 to insure an eligible crop up to and no more than $300 per county for all crops a farmer has in one county.
Lake warns that the insurance doesn't cover the total cost of a lost crop or grazing land. Farmers must suffer a 50 percent loss before the program kicks in.
Covering a crop of alfalfa that produced 4 tons per acre in 2005 could have been insured for $100. If that crop in 2006 only produced one ton of alfalfa, the farmer would suffer 50 percent or 2 tons of the loss, while the insurance would cover one half of the remaining ton that failed to grow. Costs are figured on a statewide average price scale for the crops covered.
Having the insurance helped McStay through tough times after the fire.
"I was able to hold onto the herd," he said. "I had the insurance, and it helped out."
The USDA and its Farm Service Agency have a number of programs geared toward helping farmers.
The agency's goal is to keep the country's food supply stable, while keeping rural communities healthy and viable with commodity subsidies, Lake said.
She points out that statically, U.S. consumers pay 10 percent of their income for food, while other countries pay up to 100 percent of their income for food.
Different areas of the country have various programs designed to help keep farmers on their land and to encourage young farmers to stay in agriculture.
"There are many farmers that work off the farm, and the wives are working off the farm to have health insurance for the family and to create cash-flow," Lake said. "We try to encourage producers to participate in the programs offered in the hard times, and in good years we never see most of the producers."
Programs at Natural Resource Conservation Service include those designed to help farmers and ranchers develop a farm plan for their land by proper rotation of grazing, developing springs, constructing reservoirs and informing producers on replanting procedures for better production on their cropland fields.
The NRCS has staff trained to identify weeds, trees and grasses, as well as to answer conservation questions that will make the most productive farms possible.
All programs are voluntary, but once a farmer begins receiving funds, governmental rules and regulations apply.
The Conservation Reserve Program is administered by the Farm Service Agency and allows farmers to rest their fields from producing, while feeding wildlife off of growing grasses. Wheat fields are allowed to recover, but they also remain in reserve for use in times of national crisis, famine, drought or demand for a commodity grown in specific areas.
The CRP also benefits or can be used as a bargaining tool when making deals with foreign countries.
If the drought continues, Moffat County may be declared an agricultural disaster area, which would result in more help from the government for local farmers.
Emergency programs would likely cover feed and hauling water to livestock.
Programs are announced by direct mail to many farmers in Moffat County, with notices also being posted at Craig feed stores, Colorado State University Extension Office, 539 Barclay St. and the Craig Post Office.
"Our purpose is to keep rural communities viable," Lake said. "Farmers and ranchers are great assets to the community -- supporting businesses, restaurants and schools. They require labor, which creates jobs and the purchase of homes and vehicles in the towns near their homes."
The Moffat County Office of the USDA, 356 Ranney St., can be reached at 824-8314.
Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or firstname.lastname@example.org.