With pastures dry, county pursues aid

08/05/2020

Drought conditions have prompted the county to declare an agricultural emergency, which could free up federal monies for ranchers who have lost forage. Marin does not yet meet the requirements for the aid, but may when conditions are re-evaluated at the end of the summer.

In June, the county agriculture department surveyed over 30 ranchers representing 35 percent of the total 154,000 acres of rangeland, finding forage losses were around 46 percent. That’s not quite enough to qualify for the assistance, which can cover everything above a 50 percent loss for the individual ranchers who apply.

“Farming is difficult enough, and on top of that you have a drought, and top of that, there’s Covid,” said Stefan Parnay, a deputy commissioner for Marin’s agriculture department, which prepared the declaration approved by supervisors on July 28.

Marin has made similar declarations every year between 2009 and 2016, with the exception of 2010, to compensate for poor forage conditions for cattle that required ranchers to purchase more feed and, in some cases, to shrink their herds to keep operations viable.

The declaration this year cited conditions from January through June. After a record, bone-dry winter, only the month of May met expected rainfall, though county agricultural commissioner Stacey Carlsen noted in his report to the supervisors that “it was too late for much of the forage because the grass had already gone to seed. Some ranchers did benefit from the late rains, but they were the exception.”

Lisa Velasquez, the Marin and Sonoma County executive director for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency, which processes Marin’s disaster report, said the conditions in the county will be reassessed in September.

The aid is administered through the noninsured crop disaster assistance program, or NAP, and in Marin only applies to forage, which doesn’t qualify for private insurance or through other U.S.D.A. programs. Ms. Velasquez said that this year, around 120 producers in Marin and Sonoma Counties had signed up to be eligible for assistance should their counties qualify.

There are other Farm Services Agency programs that farmers in Marin may already be eligible for, however. The disaster declaration allows for ranchers to apply for low-interest loans for losses above 30 percent for any type of crop. Unrelated to a disaster declaration, there are also a number of programs available to cover individual losses related to livestock, bees, vineyards and more.

Brian Dolcini, a fifth-generation rancher in Nicasio who sells his milk to Clover, has previously received the drought assistance. It’s typical in the region for ranchers to have to start supplementing with feed at least by the beginning of June, but he said the federal aid has come in handy in the drought years “when anything helps.”

This year, he had to supplement the cows’ diet sporadically throughout the spring to make up for the poor pasture conditions left by the low rainfall. In addition, he estimates his production of silage, which he harvests in May, was down about 20 percent. 

Silage, or fermented grass, accounts for around 40 percent of his feed source once his pasture has dried up, and he pairs it with alfalfa, hay, grain and a soybean byproduct called okara. Preparing his own silage helps with the cost of those other supplements, considering their high prices: A ton of alfalfa runs about $375. 

So far, Mr. Dolicini said his ponds haven’t dried up, and he has not had trouble meeting the minimum 120-day grazing requirement for his organic certification. 

Most years, he said, his business is viable without assistance of any kind. This year, Mr. Dolcini has received some help from the U.S.D.A.’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which is available for dairies, livestock and non-specialty crops. 

Jarrod Mendoza, a fourth-generation seashore rancher, said he had also received assistance through the NAP program in the past, though there were also years when he weathered the drought without it. This season, he applied, which he said cost him around $250. 

The primary other federal funds he has used in the past came from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for conservation projects. This year, however, in order to compensate for sales losses due to the pandemic, he received loans through the Small Business Administration and funds from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. 

Mr. Mendoza supplies organic milk to Straus Family Creamery, which has reduced production by 5 percent, though initially it was by 10 percent. He said all his employees are still working, though he did reduce his herd by 30 cows, to a herd of 190.

For Mark Pasternak, who grows grapes and raises livestock in Nicasio, the pandemic has made a huge dent in sales: Restaurant buyers account for 95 percent of his sales, and they disappeared overnight. The dry year posed additional complications.

“It snuck up on me,” Mr. Pasternak said. “I wasn’t paying attention because of everything else going on, and then when I checked my wells around June, they were way low, indicating that the groundwater didn’t get recharged the way it does in a normal winter.”

Mr. Pasternak said less water will mean lower yields for his grapes, some of which he dry farms, and there will be some additional costs this year to feed his sheep, considering the impact on his pasture.

After receiving a loan through the Small Business Administration to stay afloat and finding some success readjusting his business model toward farmers’ markets and online sales, he said he likely wouldn’t apply for U.S.D.A. emergency aid.