Joe Ranney had a dilemma last summer. In his area of western Iowa, this grain farmer had nearly 130 acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Meanwhile, farther west, beef producers were locked in one of the worst droughts on record and were desperate for feed to maintain their herds on the land.

Ranney wanted to help. He looked into donating some of the forage off his CRP acreage in Pottawattamie County, IA, to the feed-short cowmen of western Nebraska. He found it wasn't easy to do.

USDA rules stipulate that CRP acres can be released for emergency haying and grazing only after that county has received a disaster declaration. To utilize CRP acreage without federal permission carries some stiff financial penalties.

Ranney says he checked with various USDA offices about how to make such a contribution. No luck. He tried a number of House and Senate offices. Still no luck.

Finally, in late October, his own county was declared a disaster area, which released his CRP land for haying and grazing. So he had the hay cut, baled and delivered to Nebraska in December, with the recipient picking up the cost. But by then, Ranney says the four-month delay in harvest had cut the feed value considerably.

All the hoops, however, set Ranney to pondering a solution. The answer he came up with was this:

He wants to enlist the help of other agriculturalists in petitioning Congress to amend the CRP legislation to allow “all CRP land, anywhere,” to be released for emergency haying and grazing when any area in the U.S. is declared a disaster area.

To keep the program above board, Ranney suggests that USDA and local Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices be the facilitators. After all, these agencies already have the infrastructure in place to administer such a broad-based program.

Prospective contributors of CRP forage could sign up at their local FSA offices early in the growing season, he says. Once a disaster designation was made, USDA would match the donors with the recipients. It would be up to the recipients to cover the harvest and shipping costs.

What Ranney calls a “government-farm-ranch volunteers' insurance partnership” isn't one, however, that most commercial forage growers would likely find appealing. For one thing, there would be concern about the disruption such a change could cause in the marketplace, particularly in demand for the lower-quality forage — the stuff that commercial forage producers typically have the hardest time moving.

In addition, commercial growers have long voiced their perception that disaster designations are awarded too easily as it is. There's no better way for elected officials to demonstrate their responsiveness to constituencies than delivering federal help in time of hardship, but what would the availability of forage off CRP acres across the U.S. do to the commercial hay markets?

Ranney says his concept is in no way designed to replace commercial hay producers. He's interested in providing “a partial supplementary support system” that would buy time for drought-stricken producers faced with culling herds or closing their operations.

“It could help stabilize producer hay costs and, with cost averaging, make it possible to buy enough extra in the commercial market to allow producers to maintain herds without bankruptcy or herd reductions. The total amount of assistance to any producer in need should be limited accordingly,” Ranney says.

He also says that, under his plan, the customary constraints on emergency haying and grazing of CRP acreage would still apply. For instance, the amount of harvestable forage would still be limited to 50% on any parcel. And any harvesting would be postponed until after the critical habitat periods of wildlife.

Ranney recommends that producers in favor of the idea of producers helping fellow producers write their congressional representatives and encourage them to consider it. For more information, contact Ranney at 712/328-1087 or