BOSTON (State House News Service) – Farmers in Essex, Franklin, Middlesex and Worcester Counties who have watched the ongoing drought decimate their crops now qualify for federal natural disaster assistance by virtue of a U.S. Department of Agriculture disaster declaration in New Hampshire.
Last week, the USDA designated Cheshire, Hillsboro, Merrimack, Rockingham and Strafford counties in New Hampshire as “primary natural disaster areas” due to crop losses caused by the persistent drought. All contiguous counties — in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont — also qualify for the aid, the USDA said.
“All qualified farm operators in the designated areas (are) eligible for low interest emergency (EM) loans from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), provided eligibility requirements are met,” the USDA wrote in its emergency declaration. “Farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the date of the declaration to apply for loans to help cover part of their actual losses.”
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Essex, Franklin, Middlesex and Worcester counties account for 3,601 of the 7,755 farms in Massachusetts, 8,172 of the 15,649 farm employees in the state and about $174.1 million of the state’s annual agricultural output of $492 million, according to the state Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR).
Farmers in other Massachusetts counties will likely become eligible for federal aid in the coming days. The USDA Farm Service Agency’s state executive director for Massachusetts told the News Service he expects Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to issue a disaster declaration for some Massachusetts counties “hopefully in the next week or so.”
“The good thing is, when it comes — and I’m confident that it will — it will make … those producers who have had a 30 percent loss eligible, if they wish,” Jon Niedzielski, Massachusetts executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency, said. “It will open up the vast majority of the state, and our loss assessments show it’s been pretty significant up and down the board.”
Massachusetts has been under its own official drought declaration since July 1 and the arid conditions have been blamed for contributing to wild fires, an outbreak of gypsy moths, higher rates of ant infestation, smaller than usual apples, loss of crops, and an elevated population of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus.
Niedzielski said the disaster declarations in New Hampshire came about as a result of a “fast track process” that calls for a drought-related disaster declaration if a county has been classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor as being in a “severe drought” for eight consecutive weeks.
Niedzielski and his office’s state emergency board submitted a request for a disaster declaration on Aug. 19 by following a process that involves surveying farmers across the state to assess just how much of their crops had been lost.
As of Aug. 19, Massachusetts farmers had lost just shy of $14 million worth of crops, Niedzielski said.
“It’s an ongoing disaster and those crop loss numbers are going to go up until we see something turn around,” he said.
The Massachusetts Drought Management Task Force meets Thursday morning and plans to get updates on conditions around the state and consider changing the drought level classification for some parts of the state.
The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development has pledged to refocus a larger portion of small business technical assistance grants to community development Corporations in areas affected by the drought and to work with state officials to develop a Massachusetts Drought Emergency Loan Fund. The fund would provide working capital to family farms and small businesses affected by the drought.
Massachusetts farmers interested in applying for the USDA aid should contact their local USDA Service Center for further information on eligibility requirements and application procedures, the USDA said. More information is available at http://disaster.fsa.usda.gov.