Some farmers may qualify for emergency government loans
Farmers in 12 Arizona counties, including Yuma, may qualify for emergency government loans after the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared the central part of the state a natural disaster area due to a lingering drought.
The government declared Apache, Maricopa, Navajo and Pinal counties natural disaster areas last week due to a severe to extreme drought for more than eight weeks. The declaration also was extended to eight surrounding counties that include Yuma. Other contiguous counties included in the declaration are Coconino, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Pima and Yavapai.
Farmers in those counties who cannot qualify for commercial loans can now apply for a low-interest government loan.
The U.S. Drought Monitor says that farms in severe drought areas are likely to lose crops or areas of pasture, experience water shortage and face more water restrictions.
That's not likely to be a factor for farmers in Yuma County, though, as they depend on irrigating their crops with water in the long-term storage system for the Colorado River, and that source is not facing a possible shortage declaration at this time.
“The lifeblood for farmers here is the long-term storage along the Colorado River,” said Doug Hendrix, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Reclamation's Yuma Field Office.
Currently, Lake Meade is 53 percent of capacity while Lake Powell is at 51 percent, he said. System wide, total reservoir storage as of last week was 55 percent of capacity.
Precipitation this winter for sources that recharge the river system has been below average but has been improving in recent weeks, Hendrix said. He noted that the Upper Colorado Basin snow pack is currently at 77 percent of average.
“We continue to hope for a wet winter to recharge the system,” Hendrix said. However, he added, the current water level in Lake Meade is well above the level at which a shortage would be declared.
The irrigation districts in the Yuma area have requested a total of 1.23 million acre-feet of water for farmers to water their crops, a fairly typical amount, he said. The amount doesn't include the water that is recaptured by pumping groundwater.
“It's shaping up to be a fairly normal year, but we do always encourage conservation,” Hendrix said.
Julie Murphree of the Arizona Farm Bureau observed that Arizona has been experiencing severe drought for 12 to 15 years. She and Robert Piceno, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Arizona, said the state's farmers have learned to adapt.
“A drought in Arizona is like saying there's no rainfall in the Sahara,” Piceno said.
It is unlikely that Arizona farmers will take out emergency loans in the next few months, he said. Drought is common in Arizona, so farmers cannot continually pay for loans.
This year's drought already extends to much of the nation. The recent disaster designation brought the number of U.S. counties severely affected by drought to 597, which is a high number for so early in the year, said Chandler Goule, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union.
“That's a very bad sign that we are about to have another very long, widespread drought again this year,” Goule said.
Last year, the area of the U.S. experiencing moderate to extreme drought peaked at 61.8 percent, the largest recorded since 1956, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
Goule echoed Piceno, saying that since drought is happening more often, farmers cannot afford to keep taking out government loans, despite the low interest rate.
But low-interest loans are the only tool the government can currently offer farmers. While portions of the 2008 farm bill were extended until September, the extension did not include provisions for disaster relief, such as government payments for farmers with crops damaged during drought, Goule said.
Farmers in disaster areas who do not qualify for a commercial loan have until Sept. 9 to apply for a federal loan with a 2.25 percent interest rate through their local Farm Service Agency.