JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Federal agriculture authorities have declared disaster areas in parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee due to crop losses from a combination of severe spring and fall flooding and summer drought.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the declaration will "provide help to hundreds of farmers who suffered significant production losses to a wide variety of crops."

The declaration qualifies many farmers in the designated areas for low interest emergency loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.

The primary disaster areas are in 79 Mississippi counties and contiguous counties and parishes in the other states.

Among Mississippi's five largest crops - soybeans, corn, cotton, rice and sweet potatoes - losses total more than $459.4 million, Mississippi State University's Agricultural Extension Service estimates show.

The disaster declaration gives farmers up to eight months to apply for low-interest loans. They also can apply for the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program, or SURE.

If approved for SURE, farmers could receive grant payments to help make up for revenue losses not covered by crop insurance. In order to apply for SURE, farmers must have crop insurance.

"It's a start," said George King, who farms in Chatham, about 25 miles south of Greenville, a region of the state hit hard by excessive rainfall.

He won't be sure how he feels about the declaration until he learns more about the programs being offered.

"A lot of those programs are hard to qualify for."

King told The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson that he got only 40 percent of his expected yield on cotton and had to leave some soybean acreage unharvested because of excessive damage. This was the first time he had to plow over crops.

Recent unseasonably heavy rains kept farmers from harvesting. What was harvested was of poorer quality and - in many instances - excessive moisture rotted crops which had to be plowed over.

To qualify for the declaration, counties and parishes in the five states had to show at least 30 percent crop damage.

"Unless something equivalent to the wasted money that we put into the (banking) bailout is done for farmers, they are going to have a long, difficult road, after which they still may not be able to come out of this," said Ernie Flint, an agronomist with MSU's Extension Service.

Flint said many farmers had debt before this season and giving them new loans - even if they are low interest - will only add to the burden.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour began the process of getting the disaster declaration last month when he wrote a letter to the USDA asking the state's Farm Service Agency to begin tallying damages.

"While I am pleased these areas can qualify for much-needed assistance, we have to understand this crop disaster will continue to put downward pressure on tax revenues," Barbour said in a statement Tuesday. "The important agriculture sector faces a long road to recovery, just as does the state's economy as a whole."

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Some information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com

Copyright 2009 The AP.

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