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Sen. Thune: FSA offices should open in western SD

WASHINGTON -- Dysfunction on Capitol Hill is hitting the high plains of western South Dakota as the lack of a farm bill and the government shutdown are compounding already difficult straits for ranchers who lost cattle in the recent snowstorm, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Wednesday.

Thune has asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to declare Farm Service Agency employees in counties hit by the storm as essential so they can go back to work despite the government shutdown.

"As Secretary, you have latitude to exempt USDA employees from the partial shutdown if they are deemed essential to critical government services," Thune wrote in a Tuesday letter. "I request that you exercise this authority to exempt the relevant FSA employees in South Dakota who could return to work today and begin damage assessments in the wake of this storm."

Friday's storm dumped more than 4 feet of snow in some areas, stranding cattle in pastures and knocking out power.

Thune also asked Vilsack to ensure that USDA websites were functioning so that agriculture producers affected by the storm could find information. Late Wednesday afternoon, the main USDA website -- -- showed this message: "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. After funding has been restored, please allow some time for this website to become available again."

Thune has placed some information for ranchers on his website,

He also invites anyone needing information to call his office at 866-850-3855.

"We want to help in any way we can during this difficult time," Thune said. "We have someone in our office who has extensive experience having worked at USDA with these disaster programs."

However, no federal ag programs -- in particular the Livestock Indemnity Program -- are operating since the farm bill expired at the end of September. Thune said adoption of a new farm bill will be crucial in the long run to providing financial help to ranchers who lost livestock.

He asked House Speaker John Boehner to appoint conference committee members so that the Senate and House can work out differences in their farm bills and send legislation to President Barack Obama to sign.

On an interview on KBHB radio Tuesday, Thune said he expects the storm damage will meet the threshold for a federal disaster, which also will provide ranchers with some assistance.

"That will get other forms of assistance out there, but the real answer is the farm bill because that's where the real help is," Thune said.