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Government Aid Only Goes so Far for South Dakota Rancher; Kindness is Key to Recovery

The letters from Mrs. Bobbie Luce’s third-grade class 500 miles away arrived as Shawn Freeland was feeling the full weight of the October 2013 snowstorm that killed 25 percent of his herd.

South Dakota letter“I am sorry that you lost your cattle. I hope you can still ranch and get your cattle back,” wrote a student at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Utica, Neb. “You are important because you make meat. I love meat.”

“It’s a really hard job,” wrote another third-grader who had never met the Caupta, S.D., rancher. “I will be sad if every rancher gives up.”

Others gestures of kindness followed. The nutritionist for the Freeland ranch refused to bill for services.  The trucker who hauled the family’s cattle to and from the sale barn wouldn’t accept payment. The business where the Freelands  buy prime rib for Christmas insisted on providing the holiday meat at no cost.

“It seems like everything we’ve got is when our morale is down,” Shawn said. “That’s when we’d get something in the mail.

Like the box sent by strangers in Lusk, Wyo. When the Freelands opened it, they found Christmas presents for their two children, games, movies, popcorn, T-shirts, gloves – so many gifts that Kristy Freeland felt overwhelmed when she sat down to write a thank you note.

“To find words to express our gratitude...I didn’t feel capable or equipped to fully express what their gift meant to us,” she said.

Shawn is more definitive about the emotions that go with the government’s livestock disaster assistance program. Like a lot of ranchers who lost cattle in the snowstorm, he will apply, a process that begins today. And like a lot of his fellow cattle operators, he does it without any expectation that it will make him whole – financially or emotionally.  

“When I think about (the assistance), there’s no good feeling about it,” he said. “It takes some of the stress off. But it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes like those letters from third graders.”

The assistance represents 75 percent of each cow’s fair market value, as established by the USDA. For adult cows and bulls lost in 2013, the assistance equates to $1,062 and $1,381 respectively. The reimbursement rate for non-adult cows is based on weight: $431 for those under 400 pounds; $609 for 400 and 799 pounds; and $919 for 800-plus pounds. Single producers can qualify for up to $150,000 in disaster assistance, while married couples in business together can receive up to $250,000. 

Shawn, who had roughly 230 head before the storm, doesn’t plan to use the assistance to restock his herd. Cattle prices are too high for the assistance to stretch that far. Instead, he will use the money to cover operating expenses while he waits for his remaining herd to rebound. The storm killed only one calf, giving the Freelands a foundation upon which to growth their operation. It will take a long time – and a lot of patience -- to recover, Shawn said.  “But I can’t help but think good things are coming.”

In the meantime, the Freelands are counting the blessings that have come their way since the snowstorm, including new family friends. While watching their daughters play in a weekend basketball tournament, Kristy Freeland and the woman behind the box of gifts took note of the last names on the back of two player jerseys. Each woman scanned the crowd. When they finally found each other, Kristy said, they made an instant connection, and “it was all I could do to keep from crying.”

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