COLUMBUS -- Immersed in Ohio's annual celebration of all things agriculture, Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday urged the federal government to declare an emergency for drought-stricken farmers to make them eligible for low-interest loans and other help.
He also ordered the state to make highway rights-of-way available for neighboring farmers to cut hay for livestock feed, if that can be done safely.
"There are a number of things that we can do in this state that are all related to this," Mr. Kasich said after getting a tour on the opening day of the Ohio State Fair.
"There's going to be a lot of loss, and it's tragic," he said. "These farmers scrape by, sometimes year to year, and this year could knock them out. That's the problem."
So far, just five Ohio counties, all in the northwest, are deemed to be in a drought emergency by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Fulton, Williams, Defiance, Paulding, and Van Wert have that designation because they abut counties in Michigan or Indiana that have been formally declared. That could also make farmers in those counties eligible for low-interest loans.
"We've got another 83 counties in the state that have been pretty hard-hit, but do not yet qualify to seek that assistance," said Erica Pitchford, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
The chief form of assistance that would be available, low-interest federal loans, recently saw the annual interest rate slashed from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent. In prior years, farmers in designated counties might have been eligible for cash assistance from the federal government to help compensate for crop losses not covered by insurance, but that help expired with the last federal farm bill in 2011. Congress has yet to pass a successor.
The loan fund is fueled by Congress, but the loan repayments flow directly back into the U.S. Treasury so it is designed not to add to the federal budget deficit, the size of which has been often criticized by the Republican governor.
"These are loans," said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols. "The government is repaid the money."
Three weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack moved to streamline the emergency declaration process, which typically would involve multiple government agencies in determining whether a county qualified.
Mr. Kasich also urged the federal government to temporarily defer payments on prior federal loans and to waive restrictions on the cutting of hay for livestock from acreage owned by farmers that has been set aside for conservation. The federal government has already expressed a willingness to do the latter.
"We're down that path now, but I can see why the governor wanted to make sure we did not leave any stone unturned," said Steve Mauer, Ohio director for the federal Farm Service Agency. "What the secretary did the other day with the conservation preserve program is to open the land for haying and grazing in the state. He simplified the process, and the governor, I think, is asking us to keep doing that kind of stuff. We're doing everything we can."
The Ohio Department of Agriculture will be required under Mr. Kasich's order to educate farmers on ways they can mitigate drought damage and to hold a series of regional hearings to discuss forage management, water availability, heat stress, and mitigation.
Defiance County farmer Leo Shininger said federal assistance might help some farmers, but what the region really needs is something no agency can give them -- more rain.
Though he said some farmers may be helped by low-interest federal loans, he worries others might use the assistance to expand their farms instead.
"It's a fine line when you're helping people, what they do with the money," Mr. Shininger said. "Are they going to pay the bills with it, or are they going to buy some new ground?"
Mr. Shininger, who also is a member of the Defiance County Board of Trustees for the Ohio Farm Bureau, estimated that about 80 percent of the county's corn acres were insured, but only about half of farmers had insurance. Generally, farmers with smaller operations are less likely to get insurance, he said.
"The guys that have crop insurance will be fine. The guys that don't have insurance, well, they made a mistake. What do you do with people that made a mistake? There's some people who had been [buying insurance] for years and decided this year they won't have it. It's a bad year to decide that," he said.
In spite of this year's drought, Mr. Shininger said the last few years have been very good ones for him and many other area crop farmers, and he is already looking toward future crops.
"A long time ago I just wrote off the year, and I sleep better at night," he said. "You think about next year. You think about survival next year."
David Daniels, Ohio agricultural director, said the state hasn't seen an agricultural drought like this since 1988. While Toledo's rainfall for 2012 was just 2.18 inches below normal as of Wednesday afternoon, some areas' rainfall has fallen nine inches short this year.
But while topsoil conditions are dry, he stressed that water tables have not fallen enough that a drought-emergency declaration for the general public is necessary.
"A lot of people have not lived through this type of a dry spell before, so one of the things we want to do is bring together all of our partners so that we can put together some informational meetings about where you can find hay, how you go about culling your herd if you need to, that sort of thing," Mr. Daniels said.
Unlike a disaster declaration, there is no state equivalent of a federal agricultural drought emergency that would free up state money.
The drought comes as the state continues to work to recover from the recession. Mr. Kasich said his administration has not tried to quantify what impact a drought affecting the state's $105 billion food and agricultural industry could have on the state's broader economy.
"Clearly, with agriculture being important, it's going to have an impact," he said. "You're going to have higher prices, which will impact consumers, whether it's dairy, whether it's beef.… But in terms of a macro impact, we haven't made an estimate."
Staff writer Tyrel Linkhorn contributed to this report.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.