Gov. Gerald L. Baliles asked the federal government yesterday for disaster aid for 34 Virginia counties, including Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier, because of "unabated drought conditions."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng, acting on an earlier Baliles request, yesterday declared farmers in 17 other Virginia counties eligible for low-interest federal loans and reduced prices on livestock feed.
Baliles said that in the 51 counties, "Our crops -- corn, hay, soybeans, vegetables -- will lose 47 percent of their value," or about $200 million.
Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes also appealed to Lyng yesterday, asking him to "cut through the red tape" at the Department of Agriculture in processing requests for disaster relief for farmers in 21 of Maryland's 23 counties.
"More needs to be done," Hughes said in a letter to Lyng, adding that one-third of Maryland's farmers are in financial difficulty and that "at least 10 percent may encounter financial ruin."
Drought damage in Maryland has reached $118 million, or about one-third of the cash annually received for crops in the state, Hughes said.
Throughout the rain-starved Southeast, drought damage is estimated at $1.9 billion.
Hughes called on the Agriculture Department to "consider free feed assistance" by giving "government-owned grain, stored at government expense," to needy farmers. He said low-interest federal loans are "likely to help few farmers, due to stringent eligibility requirements."
Baliles also asked Lyng to "determine what other action USDA can take to assist Virginia farmers and livestock producers to acquire necessary hay and feed."
He noted that farmers in declared disaster areas must qualify for loans on an individual basis and that "given the existing heavy debt loads held by many farmers, another loan may be little or no help."
In Prince William County, hay and pasture lands are suffering the most. "We lost the first and second cuttings, and you just can't make that up," said Neal Vines, an area farm management agent for the state cooperative extension service.
Because of the parched pastures, Vines said, farmers have resorted to feeding cattle with hay that had been set aside for the winter. Others are buying hay, but "at $100 a ton delivered, you have to push a pencil hard to make that pay," he said.
Some farmers are selling calves at lighter weight and culling heavy cattle from their herds in an attempt to retain enough forage to carry them through the winter, he said. "But with grain, there's nothing to cull. You just have to take your lumps and hope for better next year," Vines said.
Virginia agriculture officials estimate that 58 percent of Prince William's normal agricultural production, valued at $3.1 million, has been lost. In Fauquier, losses were estimated at $11.6 million, or 63 percent.
Corn is the big cash crop in most Virginia counties, and except for some fields that were planted late and benefited from recent rains, it is too late for help, officials said.
"It's all gone now; the damage is done for this year," said Gary Hornbaker, the agriculture extension agent in Loudoun County, where damage to the 500 full-time farmers is estimated at $11.1 million, or 56 percent of normal production.
"Farmers say it's as bad as the '30s because it got so dry so early," Hornbaker said.
Because Loudoun is contiguous to one of the 17 counties -- Clarke -- declared a disaster area yesterday, it will automatically qualify for relief; 37 other counties will qualify in the same manner.
Baliles said that 12 of the 34 counties for which aid was sought yesterday still need to qualify. Also, 15 counties that did not request aid have qualified under the contiguous-area policy. State officials are assessing damage in eight other counties whose boards of supervisors have requested help since Friday.
The Virginia Department of Emergency Services is discussing with the federal Small Business Administration the possibility of getting economic injury assistance for businesses that have suffered losses as a result of the drought.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture has set up a toll-free telephone number -- (800) 552-1833 -- for farmers who need hay. Persons who want to donate hay and feed are asked to call (804) 786-3947.
"Americans usually show their best when times are toughest, and now is no exception," said Baliles in announcing "a true act of kindness" from farmers and business leaders in Bucks County, Pa., who plan to deliver hay to Virginia on Saturday.
The hay is to be distributed at the Southside Market in Blackstone on a first-come, first-served basis, with a 50-bale limit.
Hughes' press secretary, Hirsh Goldberg, said Hughes will announce a series of state initiatives tomorrow to aid farmers.