US Dept. of Agriculture: 11 counties — including Berkshire — officially 'natural disaster areas'

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BOSTON >> Eleven of the state's 14 counties have been deemed "primary natural disaster areas" by the United States Department of Agriculture due to substantial crop losses that began with a February deep freeze and continued though a summer marked by severe drought.

Barnstable, Berkshire, Bristol, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth and Worcester counties were designated as primary natural disaster areas, the USDA said, "due to losses caused by frost and freeze that occurred from February 14 through May 4, 2016."

Farmers in those counties are eligible for low interest emergency loans from the USDA's Farm Service Agency, the USDA said. Farmers have eight months to apply for a loan to help cover part of their losses.

Farmers in Dukes, Nantucket and Suffolk counties -- as well as several counties in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont -- also qualify for the loan program if their farms are in counties contiguous to the primary disaster areas.

A deep freeze around Valentine's Day wiped out almost all of the state's peach crop, farmers previously told the News Service, and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said Tuesday that other tree fruits were affected as well.

On top of the deep freeze, Massachusetts farmers have been hit this season with an ongoing and widespread drought that's been blamed for contributing to wild fires, an outbreak of gypsy moths, higher rates of ant infestation, smaller than usual apples, loss of crops, a shortage of cattle feed, and an elevated population of mosquitoes able to carry West Nile virus.

The state earlier this month launched its own $1 million emergency loan fund to help farmers who have struggled with the impacts of the drought.

"We appreciate the United States Department of Agriculture taking steps to assist farms across the Commonwealth," Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement. "I encourage farmers adversely impacted by this year's extreme weather conditions to explore the USDA programs and the state's Emergency Drought Loan Fund."

More than half of the state is experiencing an "extreme" drought, the second-most intense level of dryness on the federal government's scale, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The 52.13 percent of Massachusetts in an extreme drought stretches from the Pioneer Valley to the Cape Cod Canal, and encompasses all of Metro Boston and northeastern Massachusetts.

"This year's weather has been a great challenge to Massachusetts farmers; first with the winter freeze and now with a severe drought," Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said in a statement. "Despite that, our farmers have done a remarkable job at getting high-quality, nutritious food to market, and I urge Massachusetts residents to buy local to support our hardworking farmers."

As of Aug. 19, when the application for a USDA disaster declaration was submitted, Massachusetts farmers had lost just shy of $14 million worth of crops, according to the USDA Farm Service Agency's Massachusetts office.

The same 11 Massachusetts counties are also eligible for the USDA's Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which compensates some livestock ranchers who have suffered "grazing losses on pasture land" due to the drought, EEA said.

"Our livestock and dairy industry is a significant contributor to the state's economy, contributing over $70 million dollars annually," Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner John Lebeaux said in a statement. "We appreciate USDA implementing a program to address this specific sector."

Massachusetts farmers interested in applying for the USDA aid should contact their local USDA Service Center for further information on eligibility requirements and application procedures, the USDA said. More information is available at http://disaster.fsa.usda.gov.


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