Loss of income can hit hard when irregular and extreme weather events impact growing seasons and production yields for ranchers and farmers. Drought, back-to-back hailstorms, and early and late freezes/frosts over the past year have walloped the Sonoita – Elgin growers and cattle producers. 

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a variety of programs and services to help communities, farmers, ranchers, and businesses that have been hard hit by natural disaster events. Two of the many USDA programs offered are the Tree Assistance Program (TAP) and Livestock Forage Program (LFP). 

Tree Assistance Program (TAP)

TAP provides financial assistance to qualifying orchardists and nursery tree growers to replant or rehabilitate eligible trees, bushes, and vines damaged by natural disasters. In August 2020 hailstorms battered several local vineyards destroying fruit prior to harvest. Some local growers, including my husband and myself, lost up to 90% of their crop which was destroyed by large hail and high winds. We lost over one-third of our crop on ten acres that we sell to local wineries. 

In October 2020, a severe freeze, dipping temperatures into the teens before the vines went dormant, did further severe damage, which did not become apparent until bud-break this spring. This May we were able to see the damage to our grapes. Over 600 – 800 vines had died. Other vineyards on Elgin Rd. were hit even harder, forcing many producers to re-think and modify their operations.

TAP can assist vineyards by providing funds for replanting or recovery. To qualify for TAP funds based on the 2020 freeze, growers must have suffered more than an 18% mortality loss and must file a claim with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in Willcox within 90 days of the date the loss becomes evident. FSA determines if growers are eligible for funds and the amount to be allocated. Funds may be used for costs associated with pruning, removal, replanting, and salvaging damaged vines. After FSA approval of the claim, growers generally have 12 months to replant or rehab vines and then file proof of qualifying expenditures to receive reimbursement. 

Livestock Forage Program (LFP)

LFP provides compensation to livestock producers that have suffered grazing losses due to a qualifying drought on native or improved pastureland. For eligible livestock owners or contract growers, when the Drought Rating for the county is at D4 level for four weeks during the normal grazing period (not necessarily consecutive weeks), the rancher is eligible to receive assistance in an amount equal to five monthly payments. 

A U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the status of drought conditions throughout the western US was held on May 25, 2021. According to experts who briefed the panel, Arizona and other Western states just lived through the driest year in more than a century, with no drought relief in sight soon. The period from last April to this March was the driest in the last 126 years for the West, including Arizona. 

The US Drought Monitor (USDM) has a 5-level drought rating system from D0 – Abnormally Dry to D4 – Exceptional Drought. Over 57% of the state has been at D4 or D3 for the past four weeks, including all of Santa Cruz County. The Arizona State Climate Office states we are in our 26th year of a long-term drought. Our local ranchers are facing huge challenges as forage is reduced and disappearing, water is not replenished, feed bills are increasing, productivity is decreasing, costs are increasing, and ranchers are selling livestock. 

Local rancher Ian Tomlinson currently runs 1,700-1,800 cattle in Cochise, Pima, and Santa Cruz Counties, including the Vera Earl and Empire ranches He also is partnered with the Sands Ranch.

“Most ranchers in Arizona will max the forage with the max number of cows and if you are in a drought, you have to sell some of your cows,” said Tomlinson. “I have heard of the LFP and I utilize it. It is helpful in a drought where you turn in the number of cattle you owned during a certain time and the number of cattle you sold during that period of time and they take into account your different ranches and your leases to come up with a payment.”

He believes LFP is a way to help recoup some of the cattle costs and loss of income and added that there are other Federal programs like NAP insurance and other insurance subsidized by the Federal Government. NAP is a Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program also offered through the Farm Service Agency.

“If ranchers are not taking advantage, they need to,” Tomlinson added. “It’s not a program that will make you whole or build you up from drought, but it covers some expenses.”

There are many disaster relief programs available through the US Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency. If you believe you may be eligible for TAP or LFP funds, or if you need information on other programs, contact the FSA office in Willcox for assistance. They can be reached at (520) 384-3588.