Gifts exceed $1M to help South Dakota ranchers
By Dave Bergmeier
Helping people in need defines the spirit of the season and that spirit is alive and well to the tune of $1 million for western South Dakota ranchers who were hit by a blizzard nearly two months ago.
About $1,035,000 had been collected as of Nov. 18 at the Rancher Relief Fund, according to Regina Jahr, executive director of the Black Hills Area Community Foundation in Rapid City, S.D., which is the collection site for the fund. The monies will be used to help livestock producers impacted by the Oct. 4 to 7 storm.
The largest gift received was $50,000. Two incoming corporate gifts of $100,000 are expected to arrive soon.
Gifts have averaged about $300, Jahr said, and the thoughtfulness has been overwhelming.
“People have been truly generous,” she said. “The smallest gift we’ve received was a brand new $1 bill sent with a sweet note wishing it could be more. I also met an adorable 9-year-old girl who ‘trick or treated’ for the Rancher Relief Fund on Halloween. She came in with her mom and grandma to give $646.”
The young girl could hardly carry the bucket of change, Jahr said.
“Many of the gifts are sent with letters of good wishes for the ranchers and their families,” the foundation’s executive director said.
Jodie Hickman Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, Pierre, S.D., and Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, Rapid City, S.D., voiced their appreciation for the outpouring of support, in terms of financial contributions, volunteerism, moral support and many countless ways.
“While there are certainly some detractors who have criticized the efforts of these livestock producers to keep their animals safe,” Anderson said, “the vast majority of folks we’ve heard from have expressed their concern and sympathy for the losses and many, many, many individuals who have gone above and beyond to provide assistance.”
Cattle production and ranching are important to the state’s economy, as agriculture is the state’s top industry—generating nearly $21 billion in annual economic activity and employing 122,000 South Dakotans. In 2011, the state was ranked eighth in the nation in the number of cattle and calves. South Dakota ranks fifth in the nation in lamb production. Much of what is raised in western South Dakota is ideal for wool production. Lamb production in eastern South Dakota is geared more toward meat production.
Loss estimates sketchy
The losses are still not fully known. The early October blizzard struck several states but delivered a hard hit in the ranch country in South Dakota. Estimates of 1 to 2 inches of rain that preceded 30 inches of snow and 70 miles per hour wind were common reports throughout the region.
While the sheep industry in the region was more fortunate, according to Max Matthews, Bison, S.D., president of the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association, the timing of the blizzard struck the cattle industry much harder.
Estimates are that tens of thousands of cattle died, with some ranchers in the region reporting a fourth to half of their herds being lost.
“We still don’t have a final tally,” Christen said. “It’s been difficult for many ranchers to get a final count and get their documentation in place since carcasses are still scattered and many are inaccessible for counting. Additionally, many ranchers are pretty private individuals and have not taken time to report numbers to any state agency.”
Christen said about 20,000 were reportedly lost by mid-November.
“We assume that number is going to be much higher for a total count but right now we just don’t know,” she said.
“Frankly, I don’t think we’ll ever really know for sure how many livestock were lost and I’m not confident we’ll have very reliable estimates until disaster assistance through the farm bill becomes available,” Anderson said.
Mood of those impacted
Those who work with ranchers know the pride they have in what they do for a living.
“Ranchers are a resilient bunch of folks,” Christen said. “They wouldn’t be in the business if they didn’t have the work ethic and fortitude to get them through tough times. But this is a particularly hard loss and hit a lot of people. Generally the mood has been positive. They are looking to rebuild, looking at options for taking on new or leased livestock, and are talking about the future. However, there is certainly a mourning period and while moods are good, there are still a lot of tough and dark days ahead for some of these families.”
Anderson offered a similar sentiment.
“Situations vary from cautious optimism to outright depression,” she said. “I think a lot of producers are still trying to assess their options and determine the best way forward for their individual situations.”
Several organizations pulled together, including the South Dakota Cattlemen, South Dakota Stockgrowers, South Dakota Farm Bureau and South Dakota Farmers Union, for a series of community meetings in an attempt to bring resources to the communities that were hardest hit. Resources included personnel from the state department of agriculture and animal industry board, South Dakota State University, counseling and disaster agencies, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency and other resource groups that could provide assistance. Volunteers have helped with cleanup and provided heavy equipment for carcass disposal.
“I think we were successful in initiating conversations and hope they were helpful in helping the affected producers to begin moving ahead,” Anderson said.
“Another component is mental health and we’ve coordinated with various social work groups and local pastors to make sure we’re talking about that, too,” Christen said. “Nothing we can do will make these families whole again, but we’re doing all we can to make sure they don’t feel alone in all of it.”
In the past two months other issues have started to surface, the executives said.
“We’re starting to see more needs for financial support to these families,” Christen said. “Some of the families made it through the first two months but grocery bills, fuel bills and medical costs are ongoing. The Ranchers Relief Fund has been able to help with some of these issues.”
“Mental and emotional health continue to be our biggest concern as we approach the holidays,” Anderson said. “The disaster relief agencies (Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Social Services and United Methodists) and South Dakota State University Extension have been engaged to ensure we provide emotional support for those in need.”
The cattle group executives have seen encouraging signs as the Christmas season nears.
“The holidays will have a two-fold feeling this year. On one hand it’s a good time to stop for a few minutes, gather with family and friends, and take stock of the blessings that we have despite the devastation,” Christen said. “But it’s also a tough time because it’s a lot of time to think when you stop and sit. It has been so wonderful to see how our communities have rallied together, working to support our ranch families, and also how they’ve supported each other. This was a tough blow to our area but all the support through donations, calls, emails and volunteering has a done a lot to set us on a good road to recovery.”
Anderson took note of the support offered by people from many places.
“The generosity of their fellow South Dakotans and cattle producers from around the country and the world I hope gives them encouragement,” she said. “In addition, many of the local communities have hosted fundraisers and are planning Christmas parties and other fundraisers to assist those hardest hit. The outpouring of support from volunteers who are organizing cattle donations and other events has been amazing.”
In some sense, normalcy has started to return for western South Dakota.
Fall chores continued for ranchers as they worked with surviving livestock and other aspects of an agricultural operation, Christen said. High school football playoffs have concluded and several rural teams went to the top of their brackets.
“We’re having school programs, cattle sales and community events,” she said. “Certainly everyone is still talking about the blizzard and the recovery process but we’re moving on to the new normal.”
From the standpoint that many have dealt with the necessary cleanup and carcass disposal, normalcy may have returned to their viewpoint, Anderson said. Many ranch families continue to work on a plan so they can move forward.
“I think it’s safe to assume it may take some a few years to get their operations back to ‘normal,’” Anderson said.
Christen said the next goal is to help with the financial education part of the recovery.
“Many of these ranchers are working with their bankers and financial institutions but we need to help them understand how they can take on leased cattle, or maybe how to set up a shared herd, or even generational transfers and estate planning,” she said.
People can continue to donate several ways—online at www.giveblackhills.org or BHACF/SD Rancher Relief Fund, P.O. Box 231, Rapid City, S.D. 57709.
The fund was established by the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and South Dakota Sheepgrowers Association. Out-of-state donations are accepted.
Applications for relief
The Rancher Relief Fund is accepting applications for assistance to aid livestock producers impacted by the blizzard. The application period began Nov. 15.
Representatives of the Rancher Relief Fund founding livestock organizations identified dual priorities for fund distribution—assist those who were hardest hit first and provide financial assistance to as many producers as possible, according to a news release issued on behalf of the organizers. Based on the priorities, funds will be distributed through the South Dakota Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, which is comprised of a number of disaster relief organizations.
Assistance application form are available online at www.RanchersRelief.org.
An application deadline of Dec. 31 has been set in order to assess the number of applications and the severity of the needs of those applications.
Immediate release of funds to applicants before the deadline may occur with the most severe cases. A second funding round may be made available to applicants who have signed up before the Dec. 31 deadline, depending on the continued contributions to the Rancher Relief Fund and the number of qualified applications received.
A steering committee consisting of three representatives from each of the three founding livestock organizations has established the eligibility criteria for livestock producers to receive financial assistance.
Dave Bergmeier can be reached by phone at 620-227-1822 or by email at email@example.com.