Bartow County to receive federal drought assistance
by Jason Lowery
Aug 04, 2012 | 1609 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bartow County is now a natural disaster area according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as announced Thursday. The recent decision was brought on by the drought that continues to affect more than half of all counties across the nation. By declaring Bartow a natural disaster area, the USDA is allowing farmers and ranchers to apply for special low-interest loans that could help them survive the drought.

The declaration also is opening special conservation areas to ranchers, allowing them limited use of the land so their cattle can graze.

It is still unclear what the decision means for farmers in the county, however. County Administrator Steve Bradley said the county government has not received any information from the USDA. Since the drought is not a natural disaster that caused physical damage to property, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency are not involved.

"That's not something we're dealing with," Bradley said. "It's something that has to do with loss of revenue from wilting crops, and things like that, and they're probably going to work through the agricultural agencies to have people come in and apply for assistance."

Bradley added the county's emergency office should be getting the necessary information soon.

Paul Pugliese of the Bartow County Extension Office said the declaration could help farmers "make ends meet" after crops fail. Farmers or ranchers living within a drought ravaged area also will receive easier access to the low-interest loans. The USDA Farm Service Agency will fast track loan applications and reduce the amount of paperwork needed to process those applications.

The low-interest loans are not limited to farmers or ranchers, Pugliese continued. They can be used by anyone in the agricultural industry or business.

Any extra money, even in the form of loans, will likely be vital for a farm's survival as fields of corn wither under the sun. Corn farmers will be dependent on their farmer's insurance, which covers the possibility of losing an entire crop to drought. Any corn farmers within a drought-designated area will be able to take full advantage of their insurance policy with this declaration.

Those raising livestock, however, will see larger consequences from the loss of corn crops. Without the usual amounts of corn feed going on the market, feed prices have shot up. Since the drought also has stunted hay and grass growth, farmers cannot feed their cattle through grazing. Pugliese said some farmers out on the West Coast were buying bales of hay from the East Coast and paying to have it transported across the nation. While trucking hay would already be expensive, with hay now selling for $200 to $225 a ton for large round bales and $295 for square bales, the costs can be prohibitive.

Bartow County, however, has been more fortunate than the rest of the county in terms of hay.

"So far we've been doing pretty good as far as hay production up to this point, but it can change very quickly. Most farmers have only got two cuttings this year and that's an average year. On a good year we might get three or four hay cuttings. Time will tell if we can get another one in this year," Pugliese said.

For farmers who cannot afford to feed their livestock, the only option is to liquidate part of their herds. Selling so much livestock will increase the supply of beef and pork, which will lower the price farmers can get for their livestock. Pugliese said Midwest farmers were likely to be the first to start downsizing their herds.

While such a downsizing will lower prices as the grocery store this year, prices will spike next year as farmers will have smaller herds and be unable to meet demand.

Again, Pugliese said Bartow County has had better luck than the rest of the nation.

"A lot of our local farmers, I'd say, their herds are about an average size. We haven't gotten to the extreme of having to downsize here in Bartow County. Our feed costs are staying okay right now, but it could change quickly."

One way farmers are fighting increasing feed costs is to cut down failing corn fields and turn them into feed. Pugliese said such fields could not be harvested for corn and salvaging was the best way to use the wilted husks.

He hopes that the extensive drought, which has affected 66 percent of the nation's hay acreage and 73 percent of the nation's cattle acreage, is a wake up call to Congress as they continue debate the Farm Bill.

"When you've got a drought like this you realize how important the Farm Bill is. Because that brings food security to the entire United States. It stabilizes our food prices. It keeps farmers in business, and if we didn't have that kind of Farm Bill legislation in Congress farmers could go out of business in a drought like this," he said. "We'd have food shortages. It's an insurance policy, is how we need to be looking at it."

In the immediate future, Pugliese said it was difficult to predict what might happen to feed and livestock prices. If rain returns farmers might be able to recover some of their losses or prepare for next year.

"If we start getting rain everything could change. But there's going to be the residual effect of that drought that we'll see for a long time because you can't just build up your feed stocks overnight. It takes a year or two to build back, so there's going to be a huge demand for feed.

"When you have a year like this it really brings to the forefront that farming is almost a gamble as far as the weather is concerned and you're totally at the mercy of the weather...," he said.