Hebner and his cows

Rancher Charlie Hebner looks over some of the cattle on his ranch near the ghost town of Alire. Hebner said these two heffers aren’t supposed to be this clsose to his house but they keep sneaking their calves in and he’s decided to let them stay.

   Rio Arriba County ranchers won an appeal Oct. 8  preventing a reduction in crop insurance payouts, meaning they will be paid as though they expected to grow 4.17 tons of alfalfa per acre instead of 2.76 per acre.

    Drought stricken ranchers in Rio Arriba County originally got word in September that they’d be unable to claim drought related losses on their feed crops.

    Ranchers in the County were already engaged with a years-long dispute with the Farm Service Agency about payouts for crop insurance.

    Rio Arriba County commissioners issued a formal resolution condemning the Farm Service Agency at their Sept. 28 board meeting for the Agency’s changes in policy regarding payouts of crop insurance and whether or not acequia irrigated land can claim drought protections.

    The New Mexico congressional delegation also issued a formal letter Oct. 8 to the secretary of the U.S Department of Agriculture.

    In an email to the New Mexico Acequia Association Michael White, the State Executive director of the New Mexico Farm Service Agency wrote that no policies were changed and that they’re enforcing rules that were previously enforced improperly.

    Rancher Tony Casados said last year his ranch grew close to six tons of feed per acre, but this year they’re expecting to get a bit over half a ton per acre causing him to spend $25,000 to $30,000 to provide hay for his animals for the first part of the year alone.

    “The fact of the matter is that the drought continues,” Casados said. “We will have to sell all of our cattle because it doesn’t make any sense to feed them through the winter and put them out in the spring. Then with the amount of help that we’re getting through FSA, which is drastically lower by their count, it’s gonna kill all the growers up here, but it’s gonna affect everybody in the state.”

    Ranchers in Rio Arriba County purchase their insurance through the federal program Non-insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. The Program exists to cover crops that aren’t normally covered by insurance, or in regions without crop insurance programs. Alfalfa and mixed seed grasses that ranchers use to feed their cattle fall into that category.

    Paula Garcia, the director of the New Mexico Acequia Association said they received complaints from farmers about their applications for Program insurance being rejected.

    “We started getting calls from producers saying that they have been told that in their local FSA field offices that acequia lands were no longer eligible for the NAP crop insurance,” Garcia said. “I just found that statement to be egregious in the past these lands have been eligible for NAP crop insurance.”

    Casados and other ranchers are also facing pressure because the amount at which Program crop insurance is paid has been dramatically cut in Rio Arriba County starting in 2017.

Who’s counting?

    Former county chairman for the Rio Arriba Farm Services Agency Charlie Hebner, said he is one of the larger producers on the Program in the County. He said the change in insurance payouts came from an adjustment in how the crop yields in Rio Arriba County are counted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

    “For whatever reason, and I think the biggest reason for Rio Arriba is that people are afraid to fill those things out because they think that the County is going to come back and tax ‘em,” Hebner said.  “If they said that they put out 100 tons of mixed forage, then they’re afraid the County is going to tax them for that. That’s not true, they don’t base it on that, they’re not allowed to use Service data, but people don’t know that.”

    Hebner said that if the Service doesn’t collect enough data for statistically valid results they don’t report anything and throw those statistics into an “other counties” field that they note as not being statistically relevant. The Program regulations have alternatives to use in case Service data does not work.

    Hebner refused to adjust insurance payouts down in 2017 and was removed from office. A Department of Agriculture National Appeals Division lawsuit found Hebner was correctly enforcing the regulation that said the Division payouts can not be adjusted more than 10 percent annually.

    Ranchers in Rio Arriba say they feel they’re being unfairly targeted by the changes in enforcement, pointing out that most other counties in the state have not had their insurance payouts cut.

    “If they were affecting everyone across the state maybe producers wouldn’t have as much of a gripe, but Rio Arriba County is the only county to be lowered that much, maybe Taos,” Hebner said. “(It) just sounds like it’s a little bit discriminatory, I hate to use the word, I don’t think it’s really that, it just has that appearance you know, they’re discriminating against people in the north for whatever reason.”

    But Casados said he is ready for a fight.

     “I’m certainly ready to join some sort of class action lawsuit,” Casados said, “But we’re not there yet.”

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