Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The federal government has declared a natural disaster area in the California-Oregon border region in an effort to bring relief to farmers and ranchers stricken by an ongoing drought, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced Thursday.

The declaration officially labels California's Siskiyou County as the disaster area, but low-interest federal loan assistance will be available to affected farmers and ranchers throughout nine border counties in California and Oregon.

"There's no doubt it's a disaster here," said Gary Derry, 50, of Malin, Ore., who says 20 percent of his alfalfa farming operation has gone dry. "I think that about anything we can do to help people from losing their land, having to relocate and get through this year will certainly be a help."

He said the lost income not only affects agricultural enterprises, but trickles into the broader economy.

The heavily agricultural Klamath Basin area, more than 200 miles from either Portland, Ore. or Sacramento, has been wracked by severe drought since March. The region produces onions, potatoes and grains, among other crops.

A combination of drought and the diversion of water to aid federally protected salmon and sucker fish species have led to a steep drop in water available to more than 1,000 farms fed by the basin's federal irrigation project.

"President Obama and I understand these conditions caused severe damage to small grains, potatoes and the onion crop and prevented farmers from being able to harvest these crops," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "This action will provide help to hundreds of farmers who suffered significant production losses."

Some elected officials saw the aid as an essential development for farmers.

"The disaster aid will give them some more flexibility where they can help pay for assistance for farms that have had to forego crops this year and also to help as incentives for people to manage water differently," said Marcia Armstrong, chair of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors. "If you don't have that then the entire community, which is based on agriculture, collapses."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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