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Pilot program introduces ag disaster planning to local officials in Nebraska

Nebraska

Agriculture is vulnerable to emergencies and disasters, from forces of nature to criminal or terrorist attack, a national leader in ag disaster planning says.

That's why local officials should get involved in developing local agrosecurity plans to supplement existing emergency operating plans, according to Billy Dictson, director of the Office of Biosecurity at the New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Dictson was one of several speakers at the workshop, "Strengthening Community Agro Security Planning," recently, at Alliance.

The vast majority of the 3,000 U.S. counties do not have ag security plans, he said.

"That scares me, as someone who's been involved with agriculture all my life," Dictson said, adding that if he wanted to bring the nation to its knees, he would attack the food production system. "I don't want to sound an unnecessary alarm, but we should be prepared," he said.

Dictson and other experts from 10 states compose a team that is sponsoring workshops in eight states, part of a pilot program to develop a national model for working with local officials to draft county emergency plans for ag. The Alliance workshop is the only one in Nebraska. It is sponsored by EDEN, the Extension Disaster Education Network, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and CSREES (Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Services).

The workshop was intended to help local organizations build the capacity to handle agricultural issues during an emergency or disaster, improve networking among stakeholders who can plan for and respond to emergencies, and establish or enhance agrosecurity components within existing local emergency operating plans.

UNL Extension educator Scott Cotton of Chadron, a presenter at the workshop who is on the team developing the pilot program, explained that the workshop leaders guided participants through the process of creating rough drafts of county agrosecurity plans. The process included making lists of local capabilities and resources available to respond to disasters, as well as developing standard operating guides.

The local representatives can take their draft plans back to local stakeholders for completion. The finished community agrosecurity plans can be adopted as annexes to existing Local Emergency Operating Plans, Cotton said. He also plans to provide some follow-up assistance to local groups to complete the plans.

Cotton has been involved in disaster planning for 15 years, both in Extension and law enforcement. He was formerly the Colorado coordinator for EDEN.

U.S. agriculture is vulnerable to disaster or attack for several reasons, Dictson said. One is that people who want to gain access to crops and livestock don't face a lot of barriers. Aside from fences, there isn't much security, and never has been. Another reason is that agriculture no longer consists just of farms and ranches selling raw products locally or regionally. It has developed into a vast, interconnected food growing and processing system. The typical product travels an average of 1,300 to 1,500 miles between production and consumption. Consumers typically have a three- to four-day supply of food on their shelves.

How vulnerable is Nebraska? Almost all of the state's 93 counties have local economies dominated by agricultural production, Dictson pointed out.

Agricultural disaster planning is usually the responsibility of state and federal departments of agriculture, he said. But one of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina was that there's a big gap in disaster planning when local officials are not part of the process. They know more about local conditions and resources. And they are the first to arrive at the scene and the last to leave.

Several dozen people from western Nebraska attended the Alliance workshop sponsored by EDEN, the Extension Disaster Education Network. They represented UNL Extension, USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service, county law enforcement, Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Brand Committee, ag producers, county road and bridge departments, veterinary clinics, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, regional emergency planners, and other groups.



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