As the impacts of the 2012 drought become more apparent, USDA has acted by announcing several changes to emergency programs, designed to provide more relief and faster assistance to affected farmers and ranchers. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack held a news conference on Wednesday to outline the new provisions, which affect disaster-area designations, emergency loan rates and emergency haying and grazing on Concervation Reserve Program (CRP) acres.

Vilsack noted that emergency provisions from the 2008 Farm Bill expired in September 2011, and in the absence of a new bill, USDA needed new tools to respond to this year’s extreme conditions. The first new provision is a final rule to streamline Secretarial disaster designations, a process Vilsack says can take too long under current rules. Under the new rule, counties designated as “D2” or severe drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor for eight consecutive weeks during the growing season will automatically qualify as disaster areas. Effective July 12, the new standards will designate 1,016 counties in 26 states as disaster areas, the largest Secretarial designation in the history of the program.

The news rule also streamlines the process for requests from counties that do not automatically qualify, but experience 30 percent or greater crop losses.

USDA has created a map of counties automatically designated as disaster areas under the new rule.

Vilsack also announced changes to USDA’s emergency loan interest rates. Noting that the interest rate on these loans has remained at 3.75 percent since 1993 while rates for other operating loans have fallen below that level, Vilsack says a new emergency-loan rate of 2.25 percent will take effect on July 15. The Secretary says about $38 to $39 million is available for emergency loans to farmers and ranchers.

Specifically for ranchers, Vilsack announced changes to improve the availability of Conservation Reserve program (CRP) acres for emergency haying or grazing. In the past, ranchers choosing to hay or graze CRP acres would lose 25 percent of their payment on those acres. The new rule reduces the penalty to a 10 percent reduction of payments on those acres. As before, ranchers must delay haying and grazing on CRP acres until after the primary nesting season, so the dates will vary between states and regions.

On more than one occasion, Vilsack stressed that although this drought is severe, U.S. grain production could still be substantial. The USDA this week reduced its projected average corn yield by a surprising 20 bushels per acre to 146 bushels. But due to the large number of planted acres, USDA currently projects a harvest of 12.97 billion bushels, which would be the third largest on record.

Finally, Vilsack took the occasion to encourage Congress to make passage of a 2012 farm bill a top priority, and to work in a bipartisan manner to bring a bill to the floor as soon as possible.

Read more about the new disaster-assistance policies.