I know you believe you understand what you thought I said, but I'm not certain you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
A bumper sticker

To no one's surprise, the United States Department of Agriculture has a communications problem. Consider the plight of Larry Latimer, a Wilbarger County, Texas, cattleman who thought he would be eligible for assistance under the 2001/2002-drought relief program.

The devil, as they say, lives in the details. Latimer was hard hit by drought, not just in 2001 but for the four years prior as well. When the relief program was announced he hoped he'd get at least some assistance from the government program to help build back his small herd of Red Brangus cattle.

“The program, as announced by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, states that it is a 2001 and/or 2002 program,” Latimer says. “You can get that right off their web site. It really should be called a June 2002 program.

“I suffered through five years of drought on my Oklaunion, Texas, farm. I ran out of hay, pasture and money. I also came up dry on ideas. I had grazed my pastures into the ground and it was costing me a fortune to continue to buy hay to feed my Red Brangus herd of about 50 mother cows.”

He decided to sell out and took his entire herd to the sale barn on Sept. 11, 2001. “Not a great day to be selling cattle,” he says. “Then I rested my pastures until Sept. 11, 2002.”

He had some favorable rains in late summer and his pastures improved significantly. He decided to restock and hoped to take advantage of the assistance program to offset some of his losses.

“Wilbarger County was declared a drought disaster county for 2001, but has not been declared one yet for 2002,” he says. “Since I owned cattle for three-fourths of a year in 2001, I figured I would be eligible. It's supposed to be a 2001 “and/or” 2002 program. Wrong!”

Latimer found that to qualify, a cattle owner had to have had the cattle on June 1, 2002, and owned them for at least 90 days either side of that date. In Wilbarger County, that means you could own cattle on June 1, 2002, and be eligible because of the 2001 disaster county designation.

“But producers who owned cattle in 2001 (when the drought was really occurring here) are not eligible (unless they kept the cattle through June 1, 2002).”

It makes no sense to Latimer. Nor does the lack of response he's had from government agencies and elected officials.

“I contacted my local FSA office, sent e-mails to all my congressmen, and the Department of Agriculture.”

He had one initial response. “Mac Thornberry's office responded early on,” he says. “They agreed that the requirements didn't make sense after reading up on the announcement.”

Thornberry's office contacted USDA and was told, “This was the way it was going to be.”

He later received similar news from Andy Johnson, a staff member of House Committee on Agriculture. Johnson took up the cause on behalf of Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, but Johnson could offer little more than condolences and an explanation of how the program came to be.

“I understand your frustration with the recently-announced livestock Compensation Program (LCP),” Johnson wrote. “We've been more than a little frustrated ourselves as we found out more about this Administration proposal.”

He explained that the LCP was “created by USDA without involvement or input, that we know about, from Congress or affected producers. Unfortunately, they came up with a program that severely disadvantages Texas producers in a number of ways.

“For example, if you were grazing out wheat in 2000 and 2001 and suffered significant drought losses, you would not be eligible for anything if you sold before June 1, 2002, a common practice for stocker operators.”

Johnson also referred to the “perverse penalty imposed on cow-calf producers who reduced or liquidated herds prior to June 1, 2002, in order to protect grass from drought stress.

“We have made senior folks at USDA aware of these and other shortcomings in their program” he said. “However, to be quite frank, the USDA's LCP announcement, signup and payout dates are jammed so close together, I am not hopeful that we will see any helpful changes to the program.”

Latimer says the regulations are patently unfair to producers who were legitimately damaged by the prolonged drought and expects other cattlemen have found similar problems with the program.

“I may be the only one in this situation, but I doubt it,” he says. “Maybe most of the people affected kept their cattle through June, 2002. I'm not talking about a great deal of money, but I don't like the fact that I fought the drought for five years and get nothing, and someone buying cattle within 90 days of June 1, 2002, and who might not have suffered a day of drought, is eligible.”

He remains equally confused that no one, with the exception of Thornberry and Stenholm, seems to care.

“I have contacted everyone else without raising even a ripple.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com