The nation's worst drought in a half-century has spread, and 76 counties in six Midwestern states were declared disaster areas Wednesday as the Obama administration added them to the more than 1,300 counties already on the list.
At least two-thirds of the area of the contiguous United States is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor. Hot, dry conditions have caused significant damage to corn, soybeans, pastures and rangeland from California to upstate New York, the USDA said. Wednesday's disaster declaration for counties in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Kansas made "all qualified farm operators ... eligible for low-interest emergency loans," it said.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he met with President Obama last week to discuss what the agency could do to help. Crop farmers are usually insured against losses, but they often struggle to pay insurance premiums in hard times. Livestock farmers are generally uninsured and rely on loans to cover the loss of animals and the expense of hauling water and feed. Vilsack said the USDA would lower loan interest rates and allow livestock farmers to use more acres in the Conservation Reserve Program for haying and grazing. Also, the USDA planned to encourage insurance companies to give farmers a grace period for unpaid premiums. The USDA has designated 1,369 counties in 31 states as disaster areas -- 1,234 because of drought. Sixty-seven percent of the nation's livestock pastures are in areas affected by drought.