Farmers in Loudoun and Fauquier counties who suffered during this summer's drought may soon get a little help: The Agriculture Department says they can apply for low-interest loans from the federal government.
But officials say few farmers suffered losses great enough to qualify, and those who did may not want to take on more debt.
"We're grateful for what we can get," said Keith Dickinson, Fauquier's agricultural extension agent. "But some farmers may decide that they're in the stage where they can't do this anymore. . . . They may just decide to sell their farm."
Last week, Virginia Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman designated 96 Virginia jurisdictions as agriculture disaster areas. Fifty-seven, including Loudoun and Fauquier, are eligible for the emergency farm loans. Thirty-nine, including Prince William County, are considered "primary" agriculture disaster areas and can also qualify for grants from the livestock compensation program, which is intended to help make up costs from lost pasture and other sources of animal feed.
Farmers and ranchers who apply for the federal loans must show they have suffered at least a 30 percent loss in a single farming or ranching enterprise, according to Agriculture Department regulations. They also must have been unable to receive credit from commercial sources. Dickinson called the loans a "last-ditch" effort to save a farm.
The emergency loans have a fixed 3.75 percent interest rate. The maximum loan available is $500,000, and most must be repaid in one to seven years.
Dickinson said this summer was "very stressful" in Fauquier and severly hurt a few pockets of farmers. Gary Hornbaker, Loudoun's agricultural extension agent, said his county was not as hard hit. "We had drought conditions, but we had rain when we needed to make our crops," he said.
In fact, Loudoun and Fauquier were put on the list not because drought conditions were that bad but because the counties bordered such places as Prince William that suffered more, officials said.
"There won't be much -- if any -- participation," Hornbaker said. "Farmers are cautious about borrowing more money."
For farmers who suffered losses, he said, "to borrow money compounds their losses."
Jeanette Smith, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Loudoun, which helps distribute the loans to farmers, said there was a low turnout the last time Loudoun was declared an agriculture disaster area. In 1999, "maybe five people" applied for the loans, she said.
Still, she said she was grateful that farmers have the opportunity to apply for the loans. "If you help one producer, you've done something for somebody," she said.
The designation of Loudoun and Fauquier came only after Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) sent a letter to Veneman two weeks ago.
"Farmers in this agricultural sector have been hit hard by drought conditions in 2001 and 2002," he wrote. He also asked her to open up the livestock compensation program to more Virginia counties.
"If the letter helped things along, then that's great," said Ellen Qualls, a press secretary for Warner. "The sooner, the better."
Farmers who are interested in applying for the loans should contact their local farm service agency office.