County to seek disaster relief from drought

WOODSTOCK – The latest dry spell likely hurt Shenandoah County farmers in the pocket, government leaders learned Tuesday.

The Board of Supervisors acted on this information Tuesday and voted 6-0 to adopt a resolution that directs County Administrator Mary T. Price to make a formal request to Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare Shenandoah County an agriculture disaster area and to make state and federal help available to all farmers in the locality.

Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension agent Bobby Clark told supervisors that a lack of rain in recent weeks damaged crops and thus the livelihoods of many area farmers. Clark helped assess the damage to county agriculture.

“As we have gone through this summer, it has been off and on dry and hot,” Clark said.

The agent met with his damage assessment team in late July.

“But at that time everybody felt like we were OK, just barely OK,” Clark recalled. “At that time I basically felt like overall, all crops and pasture may have been down 5-10 percent for all the little things that go on sometimes. So we did not do anything at that time.”

But rainfall into early September “quit,” causing significant damage, Clark said, adding that dry weather primarily damaged pastureland. The area’s cool-season grass typically grows in the spring and mid-summer then comes back in the fall, he explained. Farmers rely on this grass to feed their cattle through the winter. The dry weather stunted the growth of this grass, Clark said.

“The rain we got … is a blessing and it will stop the damage, so to speak,” Clark said.

The grass might show minimal recovery as it grows in the next few weeks even if the county sees more rain, the agent warned.

Many farmers in the county also rely on small streams or ponds on their property as water sources for their livestock. However, Clark said six out of eight farmers told him they have had to haul water to their livestock or knew of someone who had to.

“This rain we got I estimate will not fix that,” Clark said. “There will not be any streams flowing that were dried up.

Clark said he wasn’t referring to the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, although the lack of rain affected its flow to the point that Strasburg declared a drought emergency and implemented mandatory water restrictions. Front Royal issued a similar alert when the flow from the South Fork of the Shenandoah River also dropped to emergency levels.

The lack of rain also likely destroyed much of the farmers’ seeds planted from mid-August through the past couple of weeks for hay or cover crops, Clark said. Farmers also might sell off livestock if they lack enough food for their animals, Clark added. The dry spell also could damage late corn and soybean crops.

“For all those reasons I am just here to inform you that we have exceeded the threshold of disaster at this moment,” Clark said.

The threshold is typically at least 30 percent loss in agriculture, Clark said. However, the agent does not have the authority to declare a disaster. That power lies with the secretary of agriculture and the president of the United States, Clark said. The Board of Supervisors would adopt the resolution and send the request to the Virginia governor who then petitions the secretary of agriculture, Clark explained. The Farm Service Agency also can petition the secretary, he added.

Vice Chairman Richard Walker and District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz focused on a disaster designation and its potential effect on farmers with property in the county’s special land-use taxation program. Land-use taxation requires property owners to meet certain quotas in order to receive the benefits of the program. A drought could affect a property owner’s ability to meet the agricultural production thresholds. Failing to meet the requirements could prompt the county commissioner of the revenue to remove the property’s land-use designation and to charge the owner five years worth of back taxes originally saved through the program.

Commissioner of Revenue Kathy Black reassured the board at a work session last week that her office can provide some leeway to landowners during drought conditions, Walker said. Clark concurred with Walker, who said the resolution before the board Tuesday could provide a basis on which failure to meet a quota could be excused and not trigger the property’s removal from the land-use taxation program.

A disaster status also allows farmers to sell off cattle, in the event of an emergency, and defer some of that extra income until they restock, Clark explained. Such a status also allows farmers to participate in low-interest loans. Many farmers can apply for insurance on crops, including pastureland. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a program to provide emergency water supplies to farmers. The agency also can provide certain aid to farmers retroactively.

“Just because we declare doesn’t mean there’s a wave of money that just goes to farmers,” Clark warned.