POCATELLO, Idaho — Due to continuing dry conditions, Bannock, Bingham and Franklin counties have been declared primary natural disaster areas, making growers eligible for emergency drought loans.

To qualify for the low-interest loans, growers must reside in a primary natural disaster area for losses caused by the 2013 drought, or in a contiguous county.

On Dec. 19, USDA added 16 Idaho counties to the list of primary natural disaster areas, though the other 13 counties were already eligible because they were contiguous to at least one other county on the list. Only growers in four counties at the tip of northern Idaho — Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Benewah — remain ineligible.

The loan program is the only emergency program currently available for producers, given that Congress has failed to fund the five disaster assistance programs authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill.

The program’s operating loan rate — to help growers who sustained drought losses make payments for the farm inputs they used — will be 1.875 percent as of Jan. 1, according to FSA farm loan chief Aaron Johnson. He explained growers can apply for loans equal to their losses from the drought, up to $500,000.

“In Idaho, we are not a state that gets heavily involved in emergency loans,” Johnson said.

Mountain monitoring stations maintained by the Natural Resources Conservation Service show precipitation for the water year through Dec. 24 was 95 percent of average in the Snake Basin above Palisades Reservoir, 65 percent of average in the Willow, Blackfoot and Portneuf basins, 90 percent of average in the Snake Basin above American Falls Reservoir and 78 percent of average in Bear River Basin. Statewide, precipitation was 78 percent of average.

“We’re in a high pressure ridge over the West for an extended period now. That’s going to hurt us the most because November, December and January are the biggest precipitation months,” said Ron Abramovich, an NRCS water supply specialist. “If we don’t get some moisture, we’re going to be playing catchup for the rest of the winter.”

Ben Evans, Bannock County FSA executive director, said he’s heard little interest in emergency loans from his growers thus far, but that may change now that they know they’re eligible.

Evans said several of his growers took advantage of an emergency provision reducing the penalty for grazing or haying Conservation Reserve Program acres. The normal penalty of 25 percent of a grower’s annual contract was reduced to 10 percent.

Evans said forage was dry when the provision became available on Aug. 1, but September rain improved vegetation and attracted applicants, especially for grazing.

Statewide, growers took advantage of emergency grazing on 10,660 acres last season and hayed 911 acres, said Ron Abbott, FSA farm programs chief. The option was still less popular in Idaho — where forage is often too dry past Aug. 1 of a drought year — than in other major CRP states.

Nationwide, the option freed a record 2.8 million acres for grazing and about $200 million in feed.

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