Drought lingers over much of area

Daily temperatures routinely surpassing 100 degrees F. coupled with scarce rainfall amounts have delivered a final knockout punch to many farmers in the lower Southeast, at least for the 2006 production year.

Most Alabama counties already have been declared by USDA to be primary natural disaster areas, and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue made a request in early August for a similar declaration in that state.

Every Alabama county with the exception of one — Lamar — is now eligible for federal drought assistance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 48 Alabama counties as primary disaster areas, and 18 other counties qualified because they are contiguous.

Low-interest loans

This designation makes farmers in both primary and contiguous counties eligible for low-interest emergency loans from the Farm Service Agency (FSA), provided eligibility requirements are met. FSA will consider each loan application on its own merits, taking into account the extent of losses, security available and repayment ability. FSA has a variety of programs, in addition to the emergency loan program, to help eligible farmers recover from adversity.

In addition, all Alabama counties except Lauderdale are now eligible for emergency haying and grazing for livestock as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner announced the USDA was expanding Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage covered due to persistent drought conditions.

However, according to officials with the Alabama Farmers Federation, the measure may not be of much value to Alabama livestock producers since much of the CRP grazing lands also are adversely affected by the drought or are planted in pine trees. In fact, reports from livestock barns around the state indicate that beef producers are selling calves earlier than anticipated because they don't have grass and hay to feed them.

Six Alabama counties — Pike, Bullock, Covington, Elmore, Geneva and Montgomery — previously were approved for emergency grazing and haying. The expansion, however, covers a 150-mile radius from those counties. That radius includes every county in Alabama except Lauderdale, says Danny Crawford, state director of the Farm Service Agency.

Crawford added that Lauderdale could be become eligible if there is a contiguous county within the radius from nearby Mississippi or Tennessee.

Conner announced that producers' CRP rental payment will be reduced by only 10 percent instead of the standard 25 percent on CRP lands that are grazed in 2006. This payment reduction will be assessed based on the number of acres actually hayed or grazed times the CRP annual rental rate times 10 percent. CRP participants who prepaid the 25 percent payment reduction, will have the difference refunded.

To be approved for emergency haying or grazing, a county must be listed as a level “D3 Drought — Extreme” or greater, or have suffered at least a 40 percent loss of normal moisture and forage for the preceding four-month qualifying period.

Officials in Alabama are estimating that up to 75 percent of the state's corn crop and 50 percent of the cotton crop could be lost this year due to drought and extremely high temperatures.

Alabama Agriculture & Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks has established a toll-free hotline for Alabama farmers in need of disaster assistance. “Alabama farmers and producers need all the assistance available to recover the loss of income,” says Sparks. “We want to help them by providing assistance with their insurance claims for 2005 and 2006 production losses through this hotline.”

Until Nov. 1, 2006, farmers may call and share their concerns with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries by calling 1-800-951-1275. Callers will be prompted to leave a voice message that includes their name, phone number along with the most convenient time to be reached at that number, and a summary of the problem experienced. Throughout the day, department staff will be retrieving messages and returning telephone calls to offer their assistance.

On Aug. 9, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue formally asked the federal government for a disaster declaration that would make farmers in 155 of the state's 159 counties eligible to obtain low-interest loans.

“Drought conditions have a serious economic impact on our agriculture industry,” says Perdue. “Farmers and farming communities throughout the state are suffering due to the drought conditions we are experiencing this year. With this disaster declaration, Georgia farmers will be eligible for assistance to help them through this ongoing drought.”

Perdue says Georgia's USDA emergency board has met to review damage assessment reports, which show production losses in cotton, corn, forage crops, soybeans, pecans, peanuts, tobacco and various fruits and vegetables.

The north Georgia counties of Fannin, Gilmer, Towns and Union decided to wait to submit damage assessment reports until harvest time, he says.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin says the state received disaster assistance for drought in 2005, 2002, 2001 and 2000. “It's going to be a huge, huge loss this year,” Irvin says. “It's worse than it has been in a long time. It's in cotton and peanuts. Pasture lands are devastated, and there possibly will be a hay shortage next spring. It is bad.”

Georgia has had a hotter and much drier summer so far partly because tropical storm activity has been very light, says Irvin. Areas of the state are running 7 to 9 inches behind normal rainfall amounts. “If we had a tropical storm, things would get better. A good storm could produce some good rain,” he says.

Weather conditions in Georgia have been abnormally dry since the spring, and conditions have been steadily declining because of hotter-than-normal temperatures, says Pam Knox, the assistant state climatologist.

Georgia's cotton and peanut crops are in “very bad shape,” she says. “In the summer, 50 percent of the rain we get comes from tropical storms, and the season has been less active than we expected. It's all tied together,” she says.

In his letter to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns, Perdue says that Georgia's soil moisture conditions also are below normal.

“It's important that Georgia farmers have access to low-interest emergency loans and other federal assistance as quickly as possible,” he says.

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