W.Va. declared a drought disaster area

August 02, 1999

Drought tourBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced Monday that West Virginia has been declared a federal disaster area, making millions of dollars in low-interest loans available to the state's farmers.

Farmers in neighboring counties in five other states - including Washington and Frederick counties in Maryland - also could apply for the loans.

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"Drought is the great silent disaster in this country. It's like an insidious cancer. It eats away slowly," Glickman said as he toured drought-stricken farms in Jefferson County, W.Va., and Frederick County, Md. "We do not respond as well as we should to drought. We're much better at responding to floods or tornados."


Farmers who suffer crop losses of at least 30 percent in any major commodity and who meet other eligibility requirements will be able to apply for loans to help cover their losses.

Rainfall in Washington County was 13.1 inches below normal during the last 12 months, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Rain totals in the West Virginia Eastern Panhandle have averaged as much as 15 inches below normal, according to state officials.

Although West Virginia is the first state to be declared a disaster area, Glickman said other mid-Atlantic states likely will follow soon.

At a stop in Frederick County, Md., Gov. Parris N. Glendening handed Glickman a letter formally requesting emergency assistance from the federal government. The request seeks emergency aid for farmers in 17 counties, including Washington and Frederick.

Glendening also announced that he will impose mandatory water restrictions later this week, although he declined to give specifics.

"This is not just a localized problem for farmers," he said. "This is a problem for every Marylander."

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture said a decision on Glendening's aid request likely will be made in a day or two.

Farmers in Washington and Frederick counties are already covered because they are adjacent to West Virginia, but Glickman said it is important for the state to have its own designation.

Glendening, who called the drought the worst in 70 years, said the state will begin to distribute $3 million in state farm aid by the end of the week.

Glendening said farm preservation efforts, though important, are useless if farmers cannot make a living.

"Once you lose your farmland, you can't get it back," he said.

West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Gus R. Douglass said the state estimates crop damage will surpass $100 million. As many as 10 percent of the state's 21,000 farm families might go under, he said.

"We could easily lose a couple thousand farmers," he said.

Douglass compared the plight of farmers to that of laid off factory workers, noting that factory workers are at least eligible for unemployment insurance.

"We in the farm sector do not have that to fall back on," he said.

Echoing complaints of farmers, Glickman said the drought is only part of the problem. Farmers are getting clobbered by a global market that is producing record amounts of food at historically low prices.

Glickman contrasted America's agricultural economy with the prosperity of the rest of the nation.

"There's this one sector of the American economy that is not participating in this national resurgence, this renaissance," he said.

Glickman called on Congress to amend the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which he said was written at a time when food prices and exports were healthier. He said the nation's farm policies should provide a stronger safety net for struggling farmers.

Byrd said he has sponsored an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill that would provide $150 million in outright grants to ailing farmers who raise livestock. The amendment is part of a $9.9 billion package offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would provide emergency aid to farmers.

The Senate is considering the legislation this week.

"We've got to have some assistance for the livestock. They're losing their herds," he said.

Other programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture include:

  • The Emergency Conservation Program, which provides emergency cost-share funding for water conservation.
  • Federal crop insurance.
  • The Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which provides compensation for crops for which crop insurance is not available.
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