Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Wednesday designated 597 counties in 14 states as primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. These are the first disaster designations made by the USDA in 2013.

In 2012, USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states as disaster areas due to drought, or 71 percent of the United States. At the height of the 2012 drought, the secretary announced a series of USDA actions to get help to farmers, ranchers and businesses impacted by the 2012 drought, including lowering the interest rate for emergency loans, working with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers, and expanding the use of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for haying and grazing, which opened 2.8 million acres and brought nearly $200 million in forage for all livestock producers during a critical period.

Many of the actions bragged about by the USDA for 2012 continue as producers head to the 2013 planting season. The USDA touted its 2012 actions as follows:

  • Simplified the secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40 percent.
  • Transferred $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and ranchers rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water conservation measures.
  • Updated the emergency loans application process to allow these loans to be made earlier in the season.
  • Filed special provisions with the federal crop insurance program to allow haying or grazing of cover crops without impacting the insurability of planted 2013 spring crops.
  • Authorized up to $5 million in grants to evaluate and demonstrate agricultural practices that help farmers and ranchers adapt to drought.
  • Authorized $16 million in existing funds from its Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.
  • Installed conservation systems that impacted more than 1 million producers, and reduced water withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer by at least 860,000 acre feet, equivalent to the domestic water use of approximately 9.6 million individuals for a year.
  • Worked with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility on premium payments to farmers, and one-third of all policyholders took advantage of the payment period.
  • Partnered with local governments, colleges, state and federal partners to conduct a series of regional drought workshops with hundreds of producers in Nebraska, Colorado, Arkansas, and Ohio.

"As drought persists, USDA will continue to partner with producers to see them through longer-term recovery, while taking the swift actions needed to help farmers and ranchers prepare their land and operations for the upcoming planting season," said Vilsack. "I will also continue to work with Congress to encourage passage of a Food, Farm and Jobs bill that gives rural America the long-term certainty they need, including a strong and defensible safety net."

The 597 counties designated this week as disaster areas have shown a drought intensity value of at least D2 (Severe Drought) for eight consecutive weeks based on U.S. Drought Monitor measurements, providing for an automatic designation. The Drought Monitor is produced in partnership by USDA, the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Drought Monitor measures drought intensity on a scale as follows: D1, Moderate Drought; D2, Severe Drought; D3, Extreme Drought; and D4, Exceptional Drought.

A natural disaster designation makes all qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for low interest emergency loans. The interest rate on emergency loans currently stands at 2.15 percent, providing a competitive resource for producers hoping to recover from production and physical losses associated with natural disasters.

More information about the specific state disaster designations can be found at the Farm Service Agency's disaster designations  webpage.