As part of continuing steps by the Obama Administration to get assistance to producers impacted by the drought, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today designated 172 additional counties in 15 states as primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. To date, USDA has designated 1,792 counties as disaster areas—1,670 due to drought.

Earlier this week, President Obama and Secretary Vilsack traveled to Iowa to announce USDA's intent to purchase up to $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken, and catfish for federal food nutrition assistance programs, including food banks, which will help relieve pressure on American livestock producers and bring the nation's meat supply in line with demand.

"USDA is committed to using existing authorities wherever possible to help the farmers, ranchers, small businesses, and communities being impacted by the drought," said Vilsack. "In the past month, we have streamlined the disaster designation process, reduced interest rates on emergency loans, and provided flexibility within our conservation programs to support struggling producers. In the weeks ahead, the President and I will continue to take swift action to help America's farmers and ranchers through this difficult time."

Vilsack also announced today the availability of up to $5 million in grants to evaluate and demonstrate agricultural practices that help farmers and ranchers adapt to drought. USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is taking applications for Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) to help producers build additional resiliency into their production systems. NRCS is offering the grants to partnering entities to evaluate innovative, field-based conservation technologies and approaches. These technologies and/or approaches should lead to improvements such as enhancing the water-holding capacity in soils and installing drought-tolerant grazing systems, which will help farms and ranches become more resilient to drought. Visit www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information.

Additionally, in response to a request from five National Organic Program (NOP) certifying agents, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) today announced that USDA will grant a temporary variance from NOP's pasture practice standards for organic ruminant livestock producers (Sections 205.237(c) and 205.240 of the USDA organic regulations) in 16 states in 2012. The following restrictions apply: this temporary variance applies to non-irrigated pasture only; producers must supply at least 15% of their dry matter intake (on average) from certified organic pasture; this temporary variance applies to the 2012 calendar year only; and this temporary variance covers only counties that have been declared as primary natural disaster areas by the Secretary of Agriculture in 2012. Granting a temporary variance for 2012 from the pasture practice standards is necessary in order to allow organic ruminant livestock producers to continue to be compliant with the program regulations after the severe drought ends and pasture forage becomes available. Temporary variance requests that are outside the scope of this variance will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Last week, President Obama convened his White House Rural Council to review Executive Branch response actions and to develop additional policy initiatives to assist drought-stricken Americans. Following the meeting, the White House announced a number of new measures the Administration is taking. The President stressed the need for the entire Administration to continue to look at further steps it can take to ease the pain of this historic drought.

Within the last month, USDA has opened the Conservation Reserve Program to emergency haying and grazing, lowered the borrower interest rate for emergency loans, and worked with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers. USDA has also announced:

-Authorized $16 million in existing funds from its Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to target states experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.

-Initiated transfer of $14 million in unobligated program funds into the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) to help farmers and ranchers rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and for carrying out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought.

-Authorized haying and grazing of Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) easement areas in drought-affected areas where haying and grazing is consistent with conservation of wildlife habitat and wetlands.

-Lowered the reduction in the annual rental payment to producers on CRP acres used for emergency haying or grazing from 25% to 10% in 2012.

Simplified the Secretarial disaster designation process and reduced the time it takes to designate counties affected by disasters by 40%.

The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that 63% of the nation's hay acreage is in an area experiencing drought, while approximately 73% of the nation's cattle acreage is in an area experiencing drought. Approximately 87% of the U.S. corn is within an area experiencing drought, down from a peak of 89% on July 24, and 85% of the U.S. soybeans are in a drought area, down from a high of 88% on July 24. On Aug. 10, USDA reduced the estimate for the 2012 U.S. corn crop to 123.4 bu. per acre, down 23.8 bu. from 2011. However, record corn plantings in 2012 have put the crop in position to be eighth largest in history. In 1988, when U.S. farmers were impacted by another serious drought, total production was 4.9 billion bu. Today, total production is forecast at 10.8 billion bu.

Visit www.usda.gov/drought for the latest information regarding USDA's drought response and assistance.

Primary counties and corresponding states designated as disaster areas today for drought and other reasons:

Alabama [drought]

Calhoun

Arkansas [drought]

Chicot

Desha

Drew

Colorado [other]

Weld

Illinois [drought]

Bureau

Cook

De Kalb

Du Page

Grundy

Henry

Kane

Kankakee

Kendall

Knox

Mercer

Putnam

Stark

Will

Indiana [drought]

Adams

Benton

Dearborn

Decatur

Fayette

Franklin

Jennings

Ripley

Starke

Union

Washington

Wayne

Iowa [drought]

Adair

Adams

Audubon

Buena Vista

Calhoun

Carroll

Cass

Cerro

Cherokee

Clay

Crawford

Dallas

Floyd

Franklin

Fremont

Gordo

Greene

Guthrie

Hancock

Harrison

Humboldt

Ida

Louisa

Mills

Monona

Montgomery

O'Brien

Osceola

Page

Pocahontas

Pottawattamie Sac

Shelby

Washington

Webster

Wright

Kentucky [drought]

Adair

Allen

Anderson

Barren

Bath

Boone

Bourbon

Boyd

Bracken

Bullitt

Campbell

Carroll

Carter

Clark

Clinton

Cumberland

Edmonson

Elliott

Estill

Fayette

Fleming

Floyd

Franklin

Gallatin

Garrard

Grant

Green

Greenup

Harrison

Hart

Jackson

Jefferson

Jessamine

Johnson

Kenton

Laurel

Lawrence

Lewis

Lincoln

Madison

Magoffin

Marion

Mason

Menifee

Metcalfe

Montgomery

Nelson

Nicholas

Owen

Pendleton

Pike

Powell

Pulaski

Robertson

Rockcastle

Rowan

Russell

Scott

Shelby

Simpson

Spencer

Taylor

Trimble

Warren

Washington

Wayne

Wolfe

Woodford

Kansas [drought]

Nemaha

Louisiana [drought]

Morehouse

Richland

Union

West Carroll

Minnesota [drought]

Nobles

Mississippi [drought]

Quitman

Sunflower

Tallahatchie

Yalobusha

Nebraska [drought]

Cass

Douglas

Fillmore

Lancaster

Otoe

Saline

Sarpy

Seward

Washington

Ohio [drought]

Butler

Defiance

Fulton

Hamilton

Henry

Paulding

Preble

Putnam

Van Wert

Oklahoma [drought]

Murray

Pontotoc

Tennessee [drought]

Madison

Wyoming [drought and other]

Big Horn

Campbell

Converse

Fremont

Goshen

Johnson

Natrona

Park

Platte

Sheridan

Sublette

Washakie

Weston