Hundreds of U.S. counties labeled disaster areas due to drought


drought-corn-field(CNN) — The U.S. Agriculture Department cited drought and heat on Wednesday in designating 597 counties in 14 states as primary natural disaster areas.

"As drought persists, USDA will continue to partner with producers to see them through longer-term recovery, while taking the swift actions needed to help farmers and ranchers prepare their land and operations for the upcoming planting season," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The designations make qualified farmers in the areas eligible for low-interest loans, the agency said.

Affected counties have suffered severe drought for eight consecutive weeks, which qualified them for the automatic designation.

Richard Oswald, a 62-year-old farmer in Missouri’s Atchison County, said he has been hit hard by the drought but was not sure whether he would take advantage of the drought designation for his county by getting a low-interest loan.

"The hay situation is not good; the pastures burned up early because of the heat and lack of rain," said Oswald, who was born on a farm and has been farming since he was a teenager. "This is the worst drought that I have ever seen. An emergency loan is great, but it’s still borrowed money, and as a farmer, that’s not good because you have to pay it back."

Chad Breiner of Wabaunsee County, Kansas, said the drought has affected his bull-selling business because he uses grass for feed and has to buy hay.

"The fact that it hasn’t rained significantly since June is going to make 2013 look rather bleak because the ponds are low, the creeks are low, and without adequate moisture in the next few months when grazing comes up, our production is going to be significantly less than normal," he said.

Last year, the USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states, or 71 percent of the United States, as disaster areas due to drought.

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