By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The Big Island has once again been designated a natural disaster area by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of an ongoing drought and its impact on farmers.
On Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack identified 14 states and 597 counties, including Hawaii and Maui, as primary natural disaster areas due to drought and heat, according to a press release. It was the seventh year in a row that Hawaii Island was designated.
“As drought persists, USDA will continue to partner with producers to see them through longer-term recovery, while taking the swift actions needed to help farmers and ranchers prepare their land and operations for the upcoming planting season,” Vilsack said. “I will also continue to work with Congress to encourage passage of a Food, Farm and Jobs bill that gives rural America the long-term certainty they need, including a strong and defensible safety net.”
Designation as a natural disaster area requires that a county experience a drought labeled as “severe” by the U.S. Drought Monitor for a minimum of eight consecutive weeks. The Monitor’s four drought labels run from the lowest level, Moderate, to Severe, to Extreme to Exceptional.
Last year, the USDA designated 2,245 counties in 39 states as disaster areas due to drought, totaling 71 percent of the country.
Wednesday’s announcement called attention to just how bad the drought has been, explained Diane Ley, executive director of the USDA’s Hawaii Farm Service Agency.
“This has been a long-term drought, and it’s been pretty severe for Hawaii Island. Particularly West Hawaii, which has been hard hit, including South Kohala, North Kona and Ka‘u,” she said.
Among the Big Isle industries that operate in those areas, perhaps none are as well known as Parker Ranch. On Wednesday, Parker’s livestock operations manager, Keoki Wood, said his business had been significantly impacted by the drought.
“It has certainly had a major impact on our production, in terms of cattle,” he said. “We’ve had less and less rainfall for several years, and our production has decreased considerably, and that is affecting us. When the markets are pretty high, and you don’t have the cattle to sell, that can be pretty frustrating.”
With less water to help grass grow in its pastures, the ranch has less feed for its cattle, and therefore can’t maintain herds as large as during normal operations, he said.
Among the steps taken by the USDA in response to the drought: “lowering the interest rate for emergency loans, working with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers, and expanding the use of Conservation Reserve Program acres for haying and grazing, which opened 2.8 million acres and brought nearly $200 million in forage for all livestock producers during a critical period, the release said.
The interest rate on emergency loans currently stands at 2.15 percent, “providing a competitive, much-needed resource for producers hoping to recover from production and physical losses associated with natural disasters,” the USDA release said.
The USDA’s crop insurance program insures 264 million acres, 1.14 million policies, and $110 billion worth of liability on about 500,000 farms. It has also expanded the availability of farm credit, helping struggling farmers refinance loans.
Ley explained that here in Hawaii, the designation largely just serves as a reminder of how severe the drought has been, adding that the low-interest emergency loans made available by the designation usually aren’t used by farmers and ranchers here.
“The interest rate has been pretty high on them, compared to our direct operating loans we make available to farmers,” she said. “Our staff will direct them to where the best deal is for the producers.”
She said that the loans made available through the Farm Service Agency can have interest rates as low as 1.25 percent.
Parker Ranch’s Wood said Wednesday that his operation is really too large to benefit from low-interest loans. Instead, he said, his company is working to change its business model, as they believe severe droughts are going to continue to happen with more frequency.
“Instead of looking at drought as the exception now, we’re trying to manage it more in terms of the frequency of its occurrence,” he said.”
Wood said that even if the drought ended tomorrow, it would take four or five years for Parker Ranch’s operation to return to normal, and by then, another drought could come along.
In managing the current drought, Parker Ranch has worked to reduce its cattle stock to maintainable levels, while looking to supply them with feed supplements.
“One of the things we do resort to is protein energy supplements to help them digest the lower quality grass that’s available,” he said. “That’s been really helpful for us.”
He added that the company has worked out a special “drought rate” with shippers Matson and Horizon to cover the shipment of the supplements during times of drought.
“They’ve been very supportive,” he said.
For more information on the USDA’s drought response, visit www.usda.gov/drought.
For more information from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, call 933-8344.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.