Drought of 1999

Charleston Daily Mail
August 3, 1999

Clinton declares drought disaster

But aid may be 'weeks down the road,' state officials worry

By Tara Tuckwiller
Staff Writer

All 55 of West Virginia's counties are a federal drought disaster area, President Clinton declared Monday.

The long-awaited declaration sets federal farm aid wheels in motion. But West Virginia will have to spend its own money to get farmers through the hot, dry weeks in the meantime.

"That's what worries us. [Federal aid] may be weeks down the road," state Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass said.

"We're going to have to use some state money. We won't have federal matching funds, initially. We'll be wiping out some of that state matching money."

In addition to West Virginia, 33 counties in the neighboring states of Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania were designated as drought disaster areas.

West Virginia farmers have seen their entire year's paycheck disappear, as crops and streams have dried up during this year-long drought.

On Monday, U. S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman toured the hardest-hit area, the Eastern Panhandle, with Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Robert Byrd, both D-W.Va., to survey the damage.

In a speech during the tour, Douglass spoke about how bad the drought has become:

"That's 2,000 families that are going to be forced to start over and leave a heritage that was supposed to be passed on to their children," said Douglass, who has talked with farmers who have been forced to sell out.

"One example was a farmer in Lewis County, who cried as he was forced to sell every one of his cows that he had spent a lifetime of selective breeding...In one day, this man lost a lifetime of work."

The state has already bought 300 water tanks for farmers to use to haul water to their livestock, and it's buying hay now for farmers who have nothing to feed their animals. Gov. Cecil Underwood's office has paid for the tanks and hay, Douglass said.

All West Virginia farmers can immediately apply for low-interest emergency loans, thanks to the disaster declaration. The problem is, years of pitiful crop and livestock prices already have farmers so far in debt that many would go bankrupt if they took out more loans.

Federal aid should buy enough hay to get all of West Virginia's livestock farmers through the winter, Douglass said.

Byrd has sponsored an amendment to a farm-spending bill the Senate is expected to vote on later this week. It would give farmers $150 million in grants to help cover their ever-mounting losses.

Clinton said he would work with Congress on a $10 billion emergency drought-assistance request, as well.

That aid is weeks away, Douglass said. Underwood said Monday he is "perfectly willing to ask the Legislature" to spend some of the $70 million Rainy Day fund on farm aid.

For now, the federal government has said farmers may cut their insured corn early to feed livestock. Farmers must get an appraisal from the agent that insured it, Douglass said. They also need to send a sample to the state Department of Agriculture to test for high nitrates, which can poison cattle.

Douglass has also asked Glickman to waive a rule that forces farmers to wait three years between getting federal relief money. That way, farmers who get aid this year won't be precluded from getting it later.

West Virginia will get some existing federal money to reseed barren soil, Douglass said. Officials worry that when rains do come, the lack of vegetation will mean huge floods.

"We're going to have environmental problems galore out there," Douglass said. "We should know by next week what money is available, and how farmers can secure it."

Farmers who need water tanks, low-interest loans, or an immediate supply of hay should call their local USDA Farm Service Agency, he said.


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