On Wednesday (August 1), the USDA announced two new pieces of disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers impacted by the nation's worsening drought.

First, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expanding emergency haying and grazing on approximately 3.8 million acres of conservation land to bring greater relief to livestock producers dealing with shortages of hay and pastureland.

Second, Vilsack announced that crop insurance companies have agreed to provide a short grace period for farmers on insurance premiums in 2012. As a result, farming families now have an extra 30 days to make payments without incurring interest penalties on unpaid premiums.

Vilsack has also signed disaster designations for an additional 218 counties in 12 states as primary natural disaster areas due to damage and losses caused by drought and excessive heat. The latest counties designated are in the states of Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming. More than half (50.3 percent) of all counties in the United States have been designated disaster areas by USDA in 2012, mainly due to drought.

Scroll down for a list of the counties.

For more on the drought, see here.

"President Obama and I will continue to take swift action to get help to America's farmers and ranchers through this difficult time," said Vilsack. "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. The Obama administration intends to continue helping those who farm or ranch and live and work in rural America through this period of hardship."

Emergency haying and grazing

In response to the expanding drought, Secretary Vilsack announced that livestock producers and other participants in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will now be able to hay and graze acres that have been ineligible in the past. Many of these additional acres have wetland-related characteristics and are likely to contain better quality hay and forage than on other CRP acres. There are approximately 3.8 million acres that will now be eligible for emergency haying and grazing, subject to certain conditions. Haying and grazing may only occur under strict compliance rules to help minimize impacts on these sensitive specialty practices. In addition, USDA will conduct follow-up monitoring and evaluation of these opened CRP areas to study the effects of the drought and USDA's emergency haying and grazing actions. Producers should contact their local Farm Service Agency offices for additional information.

Federal crop insurance

Secretary Vilsack also announced that crop insurance companies have agreed to provide a short grace period for farmers on insurance premiums in 2012. To help producers who may have cash flow problems due to natural disasters, Vilsack sent a letter to crop insurance companies asking them to voluntarily defer the accrual of any interest on unpaid spring crop premiums by producers until November 1, 2012. In turn, to assist the crop insurance companies, USDA will not require crop insurance companies to pay uncollected producer premiums until one month later.

During the 2012 crop year, USDA has designated 1,584 unduplicated counties across 32 states as disaster areas -- 1,452 due to drought --making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that 66 percent of the nation's hay acreage is in an area experiencing drought, while approximately 73 percent of the nation's cattle acreage is in an area experiencing drought. During the week ending July 29, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that U.S. soybeans rated 37 percent very poor to poor, matching the lowest conditions observed during the drought of 1988. NASS also reported that 48 percent of the U.S. corn crop was rated very poor to poor, while 57 percent of the nation's pastures and rangeland are rated very poor or poor condition.

During the week of July 23, President Obama met with Secretary Vilsack and members of his Cabinet to discuss additional steps the administration could take to help farmers, ranchers and business owners manage and recover from the current drought. Later in the week, Obama directed Vilsack to convene a meeting of the White House Rural Council to update members and stakeholders on the administration response to the drought. Vilsack will update Rural Council members and stakeholders again the week of August 6 on new steps taken by the administration to combat the drought.

Under Secretary Vilsack's leadership, USDA has announced a variety of steps to get assistance to producers impacted by the worsening drought, including:

  • Allowing additional acres under CRP to be used for emergency haying or grazing. The action allows lands that are not yet classified as "under severe drought" but that are "abnormally dry" to be used for haying and grazing.
  • Allowing producers to modify current Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contracts to allow for grazing, livestock watering, and other conservation activities to address drought conditions.
  • Authorizing haying and grazing of Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easement areas in drought-affected areas where haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands. USDA has expedited its authorization process for this haying and grazing.
  • Encouraging crop insurance companies to provide a short grace period for farmers on unpaid insurance premiums, as some farming families can be expected to struggle to make ends meet at the close of the crop year.
  • Reducing the emergency loan interest rate from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent.
  • Lowering the reduction in the annual rental payment to producers on CRP acres used for emergency haying or grazing from 25 percent to 10 percent in 2012.
  • Simplifying the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40 percent.

USDA agencies have been working for weeks with state and local officials, as well as individuals, businesses, farmers and ranchers, as they begin the process of helping to get people back on their feet. The U.S. Small Business Administration has also made 63 agency declarations in 33 states covering 1,675 counties, providing a pathway for those affected to apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). SBA's EIDLs are available to small, non-farm businesses and small agricultural cooperatives that are economically affected by the drought in their community.

Primary counties and corresponding states designated as disaster areas on August 1:

Arkansas

Benton

Washington

Georgia

Bartow

Cherokee

Cobb

Haralson

Paulding

Polk

Illinois

Adams

Bond

Boone

Brown

Calhoun

Carroll

Cass

Champaign

Christian

Clark

Clay

Clinton

Coles

Cumberland

De Witt

Douglas

Edgar

Effingham

Fayette

Ford

Fulton

Greene

Hancock

Henderson

Iroquois

Jasper

Jefferson

Jersey

Jo Daviess

La Salle

Lee

Livingston

Logan

Macon

Macoupin

Madison

Marion

Marshall

Mason

McDonough

McLean

Menard

Monroe

Montgomery

Morgan

Moultrie

Ogle

Peoria

Perry

Piatt

Randolph

Rock Island

Sangamon

Schuyler

Scott

Shelby

St. Clair

Stephenson

Tazewell

Vermilion

Warren

Washington

Wayne

Whiteside

Winnebago

Woodford

Indiana

Jackson

Warren

Iowa

Appanoose

Benton

Black Hawk

Boone

Bremer

Buchanan

Butler

Cedar

Clayton

Clinton

Davis

Delaware

Des Moines

Dubuque

Fayette

Grundy

Hamilton

Hardin

Henry

Iowa

Jackson

Jasper

Jefferson

Johnson

Jones

Keokuk

Lee

Linn

Lucas

Mahaska

Marion

Marshall

Monroe

Muscatine

Polk

Poweshiek

Scott

Story

Tama

Van Buren

Wapello

Wayne

Kansas

Atchison

Brown

Doniphan

Jackson

Mississippi

Marshall

Nebraska

Antelope

Arthur

Banner

Blaine

Brown

Buffalo

Box Butte

Cedar

Chase

Cherry

Cheyenne

Dawes

Dawson

Deuel

Dixon

Franklin

Garden

Garfield

Gosper

Grant

Hall

Harlan

Holt

Hooker

Kearney

Keith

Keya Paha

Kimball

Knox

Lincoln

Logan

Loup

Madison

McPherson

Morrill

Perkins

Phelps

Pierce

Platte

Rock

Scotts Bluff

Sheridan

Sioux

Stanton

Thomas

Wayne

Wheeler

Oklahoma

Adair

Cherokee

Delaware

Haskell

Mayes

McIntosh

Muskogee

Okmulgee

Rogers

Sequoyah

Tulsa

Wagoner

South Dakota

Bennett

Bon Homme

Butte

Charles Mix

Clay

Custer

Davison

Douglas

Fall River

Gregory

Haakon

Hanson

Hutchinson

Jackson

Lawrence

Lincoln

McCook

Meade

Pennington

Shannon

Todd

Tripp

Turner

Union

Yankton

Tennessee

Fayette

Haywood

Lauderdale

Wyoming

Albany

Campbell

Converse

Crook

Goshen

Niobrara

Platte

Weston