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Friday, July 13, 2012 - 10:42am

USDA Streamlines Disaster Declarations

Under new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules announced Thursday, all but a handful of Georgia counties are considered disaster areas because of ongoing drought. The department is trying to shorten the time between a disaster and making aid available to farmers.

Until now, a state’s governor had to request a disaster designation. But the new rules mean USDA won’t have to wait for that request.

“Whenever the drought monitor reaches a certain level, in a D2 for example, for eight weeks, it’s an automatic designation,” said Juan Garcia, acting administrator for USDA’s Farm Service Agency. “Therefore it is speeding up the process about 40 percent.”

D2 is a severe drought on the National Drought Monitor. More than half of Georgia is that dry right now.

For disasters other than drought, like tornadoes or fires, local officials or USDA offices can now make the request.

Once the agriculture secretary declares a disaster in a county, farmers and ranchers can apply for low-interest emergency loans to help offset crop losses and pay operating expenses.

The new rules also reduce the interest rates on those loans.

With the new rules in effect as of Thursday, 142 of Georgia’s 159 counties are eligible for disaster aid.