(CNN) — More than half of all U.S. counties have been designated disaster zones, the Department of Agriculture reported, blaming excessive heat and a devastating drought that’s spread across the Corn Belt and contributed to rising food prices.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday declared disaster zone designations for an additional 218 counties in 12 states because of damage and losses caused by drought and excessive heat.
The states are Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming.
Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is inside a region hit by drought, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage, the agency reported.
USDA researchers added that an average of 37% of the nation’s soybeans were last week ranked from very poor to poor, the lowest quality recorded since a massive drought in 1988.
Nearly half of America’s corn crop was also rated very poor to poor, and 57% of its pastures and range land were similarly graded.
This year’s harsh conditions suggest food prices could surge by as much as 4.5% in 2013, the agency reported
“It’s the most severe and expensive drought in 25 years,” said USDA economist Timothy Park.
As the hot and dry weather persists, farmers face potential losses in spite of crop insurance meant to soften the blow to U.S. agriculture.
“When I was a kid in the ’50s … it got real dry, but nothing like this,” said Marvin Helms, a 70-year-old farmer in central Arkansas.
He said he was compelled sell 125 of his beef cattle this summer because he was short on feed.
His thousand acres of farmland near Arkadelphia include corn and soybeans, which Helms says is normally sufficient to sustain his family and provide for the cattle.
“We’ve got some insurance on the crops, but it’s not enough,” he said. “It will help, but it won’t pay the bills.”
In an effort to bolster farmers like Helms, Vilsack on Wednesday expanded emergency disaster assistance to allow for haying and grazing on 3.8 million acres of protected areas once considered off limits.
He also announced that crop insurance companies had agreed to allow for a “short grace period for farmers on insurance premiums in 2012,” giving farmers an additional 30 days to make payments without interest penalties on their premiums.