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Arkansas receives drought declaration, waits for programs

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Arkansas farmers, faced with feeding cattle because of pastures destroyed by drought, may get some help from the USDA. The federal agency has issued a disaster declaration for 70 Arkansas agencies. The declaration will qualify farmers for emergency loans, and other assistance programs may come later to help producers who have suffered drought-related losses. Photo by Richard Irby
A day after Governor Mike Beebe requested a drought related federal disaster declaration for all Arkansas counties, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack approved assistance for 69 of the state's 75 counties.

The declaration issued on Wednesday, July 11 will initially make Arkansas farmers and ranchers eligible for low interest emergency loans.

"I am pleased by the quick response from USDA," Arkansas Senator John Boozman said. "The struggles our local farmers and ranchers are facing as a result of this drought are putting their ability to earn a living at risk. In addition, less food on the market means higher prices, so this disaster affects us all."

Governor Beebe initially requested a disaster declaration for 13 northern Arkansas counties, including Fulton, Izard and Baxter Counties.

"We're really bad. This is one of the worse droughts I can remember," said David Curtis, Fulton and Izard County Farm Service Agency Director. "Through June, we have received just 30% of our normal rainfall. We have received less than three inches since April."

Curtis said details of the emergency loan program will be made available at a later date. He added, however, emergency loans are usually best suited for row crop farmers, with large operations.

"There is a financial loss when you lose pastures and hay fields," Curtis said, "but it is not as significant as the losses of large scale farming operations. People in our part of the world don't normally take advantage of it (the emergency loan program)."

Curtis expects the USDA to offer other drought assistance programs to farmers in the next few weeks, especially if the drought continues.

Under the federal farm bill, which has expired, cattle farmers can get financial assistance to help pay feed costs in extreme instances where pastures have burnt up and hay is scarce. Different versions of a new farm bill have passed the House and Senate, and are now before a conference committee which is trying to work out a compromise bill. It may or may not include feed assistance. If a compromise farm bill is not passed by Congress' Aug. 10 recess, the current farm bill, containing feed cost assistance, would be extended.

Many Fulton and Izard County farmers buy crop insurance and, with the spring hay cutting 30 to 50 percent below normal, Curtis said many loss claims have already been filed. Payment for hay losses will not be made until this fall, however, when the growing and harvest seasons are over, and a total loss can be determined.

"A second cutting should be underway, but there's not much to cut," Curtis said. "Cattle have eaten pastures down so short, it will take a long time for them to recover, even if we do get some rain. But, with rain, there is hope for a late summer cutting."

According to Curtis, who has monitored area rain totals for more than 20 years, 2005 was a bad year, recording only 35 inches of rainfall for the year -- far short of the 60 inches of rainfall we normally receive each year. While July and August of 2011 were very dry, the area received 13 inches in March and 8 inches in April, and more than 60 inches were recorded for the year. So, if past-year averages mean anything, there is still hope rainfall will be in our future.

But many farmers are giving up on this year.

"We have had so much cattle sold," Curtis said. "Hundreds and hundreds of head have been sold, because there is no grass (for grazing)."

The Agriculture Secretary's disaster declaration is based on documentation submitted by the state and FSA offices. The USDA apparently agreed with the state's assessment that 36 percent of the state is classified as being in an extreme drought, and the U.S. drought monitor puts 88 percent of the state in a severe drought category.

The 69 Arkansas counties join more than 1,000 other counties from California to Florida, who have received the federal disaster declaration because of drought, qualifying farmers for federal assistance.

"Agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation's economy and it is increasingly important that the USDA has the tools to act quickly and deliver assistance to farmers when they need it most," Vilsack said.

Drought asssistance programs are likely to be underway when FSA offices in Fulton and Izard Counties are projected to close on September 30, as part of a USDA budget cutting program.

Fulton County clients will be transferred to the Sharp County office, while Izard County farmers will be served by the Stone County office.

The week of July 9, the FSA sent letters to Fulton and Izard County farmers telling them they have the right to have their records sent to another FSA office that may be more convenient to them. For example, farmers in western Fulton County may want to use the Baxter County FSA office, because it is closer to them.

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