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Wisconsin Drought 2012: USDA Designates 23 Counties As Natural Disaster Areas

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Federal officials on Wednesday declared 23 drought-stricken counties across southern Wisconsin as natural disaster areas, making farms in those areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans.

The counties have been scorched by a recent stretch of heat waves, where temperatures sizzled in the 100-degree range and left severe drought conditions that took a toll on crop production.

The declaration came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also applied the same designation to 53 other counties in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Nebraska.

Two-thirds of the continental United States is in a moderate to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website.

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Scott Walker said the state will begin accepting applications for its Drought Relief Guarantee Program. The program, which will be administered through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, would provide a 90 percent guarantee on agricultural loans up to $15,000 for three years.

The program is open to farmers in all 72 Wisconsin counties who are expected to lose 40 percent or more of their crops due to drought. The loans can be used for fertilizer, seed, fuel, pesticides, tillage services, crop insurance, water delivery and animal feed, according to the governor's office.

"Agriculture is one of Wisconsin's biggest three economic engines," Walker said in a statement. "We need to ensure that we provide this vital industry with the confidence and resources to continue to produce."

Earlier this month, the Republican governor opened up more than 11,000 acres of state-owned lands for hay and grazing. The acreage includes about 160 wildlife areas, parks, recreation areas, southern forests and natural areas.

Walker also sped up the process for farmers to temporarily irrigate using stream or lake water. The last time that was done was in 2009, when five such permits were issued. In less than two weeks this year, more than two dozen have already been granted.

Walker this week also directed the state Department of Transportation to lift certain weight restrictions for large trucks transporting hay bales, an effort to help farmers scrambling to find enough feed for their livestock. The order, which will run through June 30 of next year, directed the state transportation department to issue free permits authorizing the transport of heavier hay loads under certain conditions.

The 23 counties declared natural disaster areas were Adams, Columbia, Crawford, Dane, Dodge, Fond du Lac, Grant, Green, Green Lake, Iowa, Jefferson, Kenosha, Lafayette, Marquette, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Richland, Rock, Sauk, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha.

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.

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