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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / The Piney River is mostly dry on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, near Spring City, Tenn. The ongoing severe drought in the region has caused many wells, the primary source of water for residents and farm operations in rural Tennessee, to run dry.

USDA FARM SERVICE AGENCY LOANS

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency Emergency loan program is triggered when a natural disaster is designated by the Secretary of Agriculture or a natural disaster or emergency is declared by the president under the Stafford Act. These loans help producers who suffer qualifying farm related losses directly caused by the disaster in a county declared or designated as a primary disaster or quarantine area. Also, farmers located in counties that are contiguous to the declared, designated, or quarantined area may qualify for emergency loans.

TENNESSEE DISASTER COUNTIES

The U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 46 counties in Tennessee as primary natural disaster areas. All the counties in Southeast Tennessee are listed, including:

Bledsoe, Bradley, Coffee, Cumberland, Franklin, Grundy, Hamilton, Loudon, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, Polk, Rhea, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren.

Across the rest of the state: Bedford, Blount, Campbell, Cannon, Cheatham, Claiborne, Clay, Cocke, Davidson, DeKalb, Dickson, Fentress, Giles, Grainger, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hardin, Hawkins, Hickman, Jackson, Jefferson, Knox, Lawrence, Lewis, Lincoln, Macon, Marshall, Maury, Montgomery, Moore, Morgan, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, Roane, Robertson, Rutherford, Scott, Sevier, Smith, Stewart, Sumner, Trousdale, Union, Wayne, White, Williamson, and Wilson.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

U.S. SMALL BUSINESS ASSOCIATION LOANS

Under the U.S. Small Business Administration’s declaration, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program is available to eligible farm-related and nonfarm-related entities that suffered financial losses as a direct result of this disaster. With the exception of aquaculture enterprises, SBA cannot provide disaster loans to agricultural producers, farmers, or ranchers. Nurseries are eligible to apply for economic injury disaster loans for losses caused by drought conditions. Eligible counties are: Anderson, Bedford, Bledsoe, Blount, Campbell, Cannon, Cheatham, Chester, Claiborne, Clay, Cocke, Coffee, Cumberland, Davidson, Decatur, DeKalb, Dickson, Fentress, Giles, Grainger, Greene, Grundy, Hamblen, Hancock, Hardin, Hawkins, Henderson, Hickman, Houston, Humphreys, Jackson, Jefferson, Knox, Lawrence, Lewis, Lincoln, Loudon, Macon, Marshall, Maury, McMinn, McNairy, Monroe, Montgomery, Moore, Morgan, Overton, Perry, Pickett, Putnam, Roane, Robertson, Rutherford, Scott, Sequatchie, Sevier, Smith, Stewart, Sullivan, Sumner, Trousdale, Unicoi, Union, Van Buren, Warren, Washington, Wayne, White, Williamson and Wilson.

Source: U.S. Small Business Administration

Farmers across the region say the heat was as damaging as the lack of rain during this year's drought, which has triggered a disaster declaration for almost half of Tennessee.

And while drought damage isn't as obvious amid recent wet weather, the damage done by more than six rainless months of above-average heat showed up in crop yields and beef operations.

Gary Swafford grows produce like tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, beans and pumpkins at his farm on the Bledsoe-Rhea county line about 35 miles north of Chattanooga. He said he was fortunate to have built a lake a few years ago fed by a strong spring that allowed him to fight back against the lack of rain, but it didn't help much when it came to the relentless heat.

"We've got everything on drip irrigation, so we made it all right except for the heat; our yield was down," Swafford said. But the decrease in yields caused some prices to go up, which helped offset his losses, he said.

Forty-six of Tennessee's 95 counties, including all the counties in Southeast Tennessee, were declared disaster areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers in eligible counties have eight months to apply for low-interest emergency loans from USDA's Farm Service Agency to cover their losses.

Alongside the USDA declaration, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced Wednesday that small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture and private nonprofit organizations in 70 Tennessee counties across the state are eligible for Economic Injury Disaster Loans to help with losses due to the drought.

"We had enough moisture, but the plants couldn't take up enough water through the root system to satisfy the transpiration rate of the foliage" because of the heat, said farmer Wayne Griffith. Griffith raises row crops similar to Swafford's and he's seen what most of his fellow farmers across the region went through.

"People with corn and soybeans had trouble because they couldn't irrigate," he said. Griffith noted other impacts from the heat that hit area poultry farm operations, forcing them to run cooling fans all night, driving up electric bills. Cattle farmers lost pasture and were forced to buy hay for cattle that would ordinarily graze for their food, he said.

"That will be profound in the next three months," Griffith said. He said cattle farmers will have to watch for magnesium deficiencies because the low-quality hay they are having to buy and struggling pasture grasses are lacking some nutrients.

USDA officials say that besides the 46 Tennessee counties named to the disaster list, an additional 24 bordering Tennessee counties can qualify for natural disaster assistance, plus another 12 in Kentucky, four in North Carolina, two each in Virginia and Mississippi and one in Alabama.

Tennessee Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Samantha Jean said the drought has slammed Tennessee farmers, particularly in the lower right corner of the state.

Jean pointed to beef cattle production, Tennessee's top commodity, noting how the state's beef industry has suffered as farmers sold off herds to keep from having to buy hay for them to eat. Pasture grass in many areas was gone by early summer.

"That is not unusual or in any way specific to Tennessee. Droughts happen and farmers adjust accordingly," Commissioner Jai Templeton said via email. "The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is working closely with agricultural agencies, industry leaders and other state, local and federal partners to address concerns. Everyone is stepping up to provide resources and assistance to farmers impacted by the drought."

Fortunately, after several months of worsening drought conditions, the weather finally started to play ball in the second half of November by dumping several inches of rain on the parched region over a few weeks.

The U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday showed the huge red bull's-eye of drought on its map is starting to shrink, thanks to recent rains.

And also as of Thursday, Chattanooga had received 4.19 inches of rain in December — .76 inches more than the month's average.

Derek Eisentrout, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tenn., said the above-average rainfall was much-needed and will likely continue into 2017.

"We've been able to improve our drought status all across East Tennessee through the month of December and it should continue to improve through the new year," he said.

At 34.72 inches of total rainfall to date in 2016, Chattanooga is still well below the typical yearly average of 51.71 inches, but the year isn't over yet. Eisentrout said forecasters are estimating another three quarters of an inch to fall on Christmas Eve.

In Alabama, recent rains have greatly reduced the risk of wildfires and replenished dried-up streams, but new statistics released Thursday showed that 96 percent of the state remains locked in a drought.

An update by the National Drought Mitigation Center showed that a sliver of southeast Alabama has received enough rain to be completely drought-free.

Rainfall is normal in parts of Geneva and Houston counties. But the rest of the state remains in a drought, including the state's largest cities of Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery. Conditions are worst in northeastern Alabama.

The federal assessment says 4.6 million people in the state are still affected by arid conditions. Some water systems are still restricting water use or asking customers to restrict consumption.

Parts of the state were more than 15 inches below normal precipitation before rains returned late last month, ending an outbreak of wildfires that burned thousands of acres in October and November. Officials have since lifted a ban on outdoor burning.

But state climatologist John Christy has said 1 inch of rain is needed each week just to improve conditions, and the rains haven't been heavy enough to end the drought.

The Associated Press and staff writer Emmett Gienapp contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

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