Lawmakers: New Mexico farmers shortchanged on disaster aid

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's congressional delegation is calling for more oversight of a federal agency after some farmers and ranchers were shortchanged on disaster aid and Hispanic farmers who rely on traditional acequias to irrigate their crops have been told they’re ineligible for assistance.

The delegation is asking the U.S. Agriculture Department to monitor the New Mexico Farm Service Agency's management of the disaster aid program given recent complaints and confirmation that the agency was improperly adjusting expected crop yields retroactively to reduce payouts for disaster relief.

The senators and representatives in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the Farm Service Agency also implemented a policy to exclude farms and ranches that depend on acequias from applying for drought relief under under the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program.

The delegation contends the change is inconsistent with how the program has been administered in previous years and represents an egregious misunderstanding of drought conditions and how they impact crop yields.

“We are deeply concerned that New Mexico FSA appears to be circumventing its own rules at the expense of New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers,” the letter states.

The New Mexico Farm Service Agency did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday about the policy or other concerns raised by the delegation.

New Mexico farmers and ranchers are facing a difficult year due to challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic and the continued drought. This week's report from the Agriculture Department's national statistics service points out there was no rain over the past week in New Mexico, and daily high temperatures were trending about 12 degrees hotter than average for this time of year.

The latest drought map also shows every square mile of the state is dealing with some level of drought.

Weather forecasters say over the last six months, New Mexico and Nevada have had their second warmest April–September period in 126 years, while Arizona and California recorded their warmest ever. During that same period, Utah and Arizona had their driest period ever, with New Mexico having its second driest.

During such times, acequia managers govern how much water each member is allocated and, in some cases, what it can be used for.

“This form of communal governance allows New Mexican communities to navigate and ensure water rights in times of scarcity or extreme scarcity — water rights that go back hundreds of years for most acequias,” the letter reads.

Aside from oversight, the lawmakers want the Agriculture Department to clarify policies related to drought relief and to implement the findings that resulted from the fight over the adjusted crop yields. The head of the department's appeals division had said in August that the Farm Service Agency must comply with regulations and the procedures specified in its handbook.