As drought widens, 50.3 percent of US counties declared disaster areas

Posted Aug. 01, 2012, at 6:45 p.m.

More than half of the counties in the United States have been designated as disaster areas mainly because of the ongoing drought that has been ravaging the nation, officials announced Wednesday.

Disaster designations were signed for 218 more counties in 12 states, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced. That brings this year’s total to 1,584 counties in 32 states; more than 90 percent of those designations are due to drought conditions.

The latest designations were in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming. The Department of Agriculture said that 50.3 percent of all U.S. counties have been designated as disaster areas.

Although the drought is expected to have some impact on food prices, the increases are months off. Meanwhile, the federal government has been concentrating on helping beleaguered farmers and ranchers.

Vilsack announced that the government is opening up approximately 3.8 million acres of conservation land for grazing and haying so that livestock producers can deal with shortages of pastureland and hay.

Further, Vilsack said, crop insurance companies have agreed to provide a grace period for farmers who need more time to pay insurance premiums. Farmers will have an extra 30 days to make their payments without having to pay a penalty.

“President Obama and I will continue to take swift action to get help to America’s farmers and ranchers through this difficult time,” Vilsack said. “The assistance announced today will help U.S. livestock producers dealing with climbing feed prices, critical shortages of hay and deteriorating pasturelands. Responding to my request, crop insurance companies indicated that producers can forgo interest penalties to help our nation’s farm families struggling with cash-flow challenges.”

According to the Drought Monitor, 66 percent of the nation’s hay acreage is in an area experiencing drought, and approximately 73 percent of the nation’s cattle acreage is in an area experiencing drought, according to the Agriculture Department.

The picture is equally grim when it comes to crops. According to the department, 37 percent of soybeans were rated poor to very poor, matching the poorest conditions since the drought of 1988. About 48 percent of the U.S. corn crop was rated very poor to poor.

Prices on corn and soybeans have been rising, but it takes time for the increase to work its way through the food chain. Usually the first areas to feel the pressure are dairy products, while processed foods take longer.

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©2012 Los Angeles Times

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