COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The words "natural disaster" often evoke vivid images of hurricanes and wildfires and the devastated landscapes they leave behind.

But 101 out of 114 counties in Missouri, including Boone County, have been federally designated as natural disaster areas as of Oct. 17, due to drought and excessive heat this summer.

"This sort of thing happens all the time," said Dan Gieseke, farm loan chief for the Farm Service Agency of Missouri.

The natural disaster designation gives farmers access to a special, low-interest emergency loan, but the aging loan program is increasingly under-used.

In 2011 alone, Boone County has been designated a natural disaster area four times by either President Barack Obama or U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

This year isn't exceptional. In four of the past five years, Boone County has received a natural disaster area designation at some point during the year.

Gieseke rattled off the official natural disasters the state has seen this year.

"Well, we had a blizzard in February, then flooding in the Missouri Bootheel, then more flooding along the Missouri River from the Gavins Point Dam (in South Dakota), then the drought," he said. "And now we're considering whether a hailstorm in August in northwestern Missouri qualifies, too."

The natural disaster designation allows farmers who have lost at least 30 percent of their crop yield to apply for low-interest emergency loans to cover damage. In order to qualify for the low interest rate, they must be unable to secure loans from private, conventional creditors, according to Mark Mudd, the Farm Service Agency loan officer for seven Missouri counties, including Boone and Callaway.

There is no requirement that the losses declared by farmers in a disaster area are the result of the disaster in question, Gieseke said. As long as producers live within a designated disaster area and can prove they lost 30 percent of their average crop yield, they can apply for a loan.

It is up to the Farm Service Agency to verify the losses. Many producers have crop insurance, and those companies keep yield records for their customers, so often verification is as simple as checking with the farmer's insurer. But those who don't have insurance turn in self-reported yield records, and Farm Service Agency officers must look at income tax returns and grain receipts to verify their reports.

Mudd said that as far as he knows, Boone County farmers haven't applied for one of these loans since the mid-1990s.

Emergency loans make up only a small percentage of total farm loans distributed each year, Gieseke said.

So far this year, for example, the Farm Service Agency has handed out 1,234 loans in Missouri, totaling over $184 million. Of those loans, six were emergency loans made available in natural disaster areas, totaling $265,290.

At the request of Gov. Jay Nixon, local committees called county emergency boards meet and produce an estimate of agricultural losses due to proposed natural disasters.

"They meet with some producers, take a tour of the county sometimes and see what they can see," Gieseke said. "It's very unscientific."

Boone County's emergency board consists of five members: Kim Viers, director of the Farm Service Agency in Boone County; Robert Hagedorn, a district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service; and three local farmers from different regions in the county who make up the Boone County Farm Service Agency Committee, Carol Riedel (northeast), David Grant (east-central) and Troy Douglas (northwest).

Based on its evaluations, the board comes up with an estimate of crop yield losses for Boone County.

Grant said farmers on the board evaluate the condition of the crops and grasses in their area, talk to other producers and try to keep in mind rainfall and temperature data.

"In the end, we give an opinion, really," he said.

The resulting damage estimates are sent to a state emergency board, which reviews them and sends them to the national Farm Service Agency in Washington, D.C. After another review, they are signed by Vilsack or the president.

Grant said most producers in the area would qualify for the required 30 percent crop loss this year, particularly those growing corn.

"Yeah, I'd feel pretty confident that in many places we've had as much as 40 to 50 percent decrease in corn production," he said. He estimated that his yields are down more than 30 percent.

But like many agricultural producers in the county, he has crop insurance and won't be applying for any emergency loans.

The low-interest nature of the emergency loans doesn't impress him.

"After all," he said, "a loan is still a loan," and producers will still be taking on debt.

Gieseke said the 3.75 percent interest rate of emergency loans isn't much lower than many other loans available to farmers through other Farm Service Agency programs or through private, local creditors.

A rising number of farmers covered by crop insurance has weakened the need for emergency loans.

Darrell Campbell, director of the Farm Service Agency in Callaway County, estimates 60 to 70 percent of Missouri's agricultural producers are covered by some form of insurance.

Campbell said the loan process itself acts as a deterrent. "There's too many bells and whistles to go through," he said, referring to the large amount of collateral that the emergency loan program requires.

The program, as it stands, has been in place since 1961, said Kent Politsch, chief of public affairs for the Farm Service Agency in Washington, D.C.

"We have records of disaster loans being available as early as 1918," he said. "It's a fairly old practice."

Even given its old age and what he acknowledged as a low level of use, Politsch doesn't believe the program has outgrown its use.

"I don't think it's ever outdated," he said. "Our purpose is to be a safety net."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.