Drought Puts More than Half of U.S. Counties in Disaster Zones, USDA says

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(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.

USDA researchers reported that an average of 37% of the nation’s soybeans were 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 rated.

This year’s harsh conditions suggest food prices could increase as much as 4.5% in 2013, the agency reported.

“Corn is a major input in all sorts of food,” USDA spokesman Matt Herrick said.

“It’s in about 75% of the food you can buy.”

As the hot and dry weather persists, farmers are facing potential losses, despite the help of crop insurance meant to soften the blow to U.S. agriculture.

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