By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Conservation district officials described a federal agricultural disaster declaration to address extreme drought conditions in the state as “a good start” but said it falls short of what’s needed.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has declared 76 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties — along with 521 other counties in 13 states — as primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat. The declaration makes all qualified farm operators eligible for low-interest emergency loans.
Joe Parker, the president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, said he welcomes any effort to provide relief to the state’s farmers and ranchers. Parker throttled his appreciation, however, saying the potential for continued drought conditions poses an ongoing threat of a crisis.
“I’m concerned though that this drought is going to hang on through the spring and summer. It’s critical that our farmers and ranchers have all the tools necessary to get through this record dry weather,” Parker said in a media release. “This declaration is a step in the right direction, but we also need Congress and our state Legislature to step up to the plate to help get us through this critical time.”
Parker said that although the rain that fell this week across much of the state may have settled the dust, it was “nowhere near what we need to break the drought. We need help.”
He said Vilsack’s declaration, which includes all but Ottawa County in far northeastern Oklahoma, should serve as a challenge to lawmakers, who must address critical needs caused by the drought.
Almost 95 percent of the state is experiencing extreme drought conditions, compared with 24 percent a year ago, according to statistics kept by the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. More than 37 percent of the state is experiencing an exceptional drought, the highest degree measured on a five-point scale.
Parker called on state legislators to approve a drought package that includes financial help for farmers and ranchers and for fire protection. He said money is needed to get water to livestock, address soil erosion, repair pastures and rid the landscape of “eastern red cedars and other invasive species that suck up water and create fire danger.”
Congress, meanwhile, must reauthorize a full, five-year farm bill that addresses conservation and disasters such as this drought, he said. A bill was approved this past summer by the Senate, but it stalled in in the House.
“It is amazing to me that we are in the middle of the worst drought our nation has seen since the 1930s, and Congress has still not reauthorized the farm bill,” Parker said. “It’s incredible that during the debate over the fiscal cliff, no consideration was given to helping farmers and ranchers, especially livestock producers that have been stricken by this drought.”
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 2,245 counties in 39 states — 71 percent of the nation — as disaster areas due to drought. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center indicates the drought will persist or intensify across Oklahoma and much of the western half of the nation through March 31.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.