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Farmers to get help in fight against drought

By By Robert Blankenship
Advance Managing Editor
The long, hot summer that has dominated the south the past few months has resulted in Alabama, and three other states, being declared as agricultural disaster areas by the United States Department of Agriculture.
USDA Secretary Dan Glickman declared parts of Alabama, Florida, Nebraska and New Mexico agricultural disaster areas due to drought, making farmers in these areas eligible for emergency low-interest loans.
Sixty-four counties across Alabama are eligible for disaster relief; only Limestone, Jackson and Marshall counties in northeast Alabama were not included as part of the disaster area. The remaining counties, including Escambia, are eligible for low interest loans on up to 80 percent actual production loss or 100 percent physical facility loss. Loans are capped at $500,000.
USDA is also allowing livestock grazing on some Conservation Reserve Program land in areas experiencing serious drought conditions. Glickman also said USDA is providing loans to help ranchers get desperately needed water to their livestock.
In addition to low-interest loans, hay has also been made available for Escambia livestock through a hay-distribution program initiated by the USDA and coordinated by the Escambia County Extension System.
Farmers who have no available forage grass or stockpiled hay can apply for free hay at the county's extension office. Initial plans will provide hay free to producers, but if the drought continues or spreads to other areas of the state, the State Department of Agriculture and Industries may have to charge a fee for the hay.
To qualify for free hay in this initial effort, a farmer must have a total income of no more than $200,000 or must generate at least 50 percent of his income from agriculture, according to Charles Bishop, Commissioner of Agriculture.
A committee has been formed in Escambia County to deal with the hay relief program. Those members include County Extension Agent Buck Farrior, Escambia County Commissioner Larry White, Ed Jackson, a member of the Escambia County Farmers Federation, Todd Williamson and Jimmy Lee from the Escambia County Cattlemen's Association and Robert Hawkins of the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Additional help will come in the way of an amendment passed by the U.S. Senate late this week which will give agriculturalists access to at least $5 million in federal money. The money could be used to continue the emergency hay lift program started earlier this summer by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. The state Agriculture Department has been buying hay and collecting donations of hay in an effort to feed hungry cattle. But, money for the hay lift program will run out on Aug. 15, according to Bishop. Since Alabama falls under an emergency spending category for the current fiscal year, the money could become available as soon as President Clinton signs the legislation.
But, hay production has also taken a hard hit from the lack of precipitation over the past months too. Owen Wood, who works on Mike Jalis' hay farm, said this year's hay production would be well below that of previous years.
Hay has already been shipped into the southeastern portion of the state, which has been the hardest hit by the drought. At this point, Wood does not think hay producers will be able to recover for this season.
Farmers in eligible counties who are interested in the assistance loans from the USDA have eight months from the date of Glickman's announcement, which was officially made on June 23, to apply for the USDA assistance loans to help cover part of their actual losses. USDA's Farm Service Agency will consider each loan application on its own merits, taking into account the extent of losses, security available, repayment ability and other eligibility requirements.
Another way the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station and Auburn University are responding to farmers' needs in the drought areas is by waving fees for agricultural diagnostic and analytical services. Included in these diagnostic tests are forage analysis, soil testing and plant diagnostics.
For more information about these programs contact the Escambia County Extension Office at 867-7760.