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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack has designated 16 New Jersey counties as natural disaster areas to assist farms that suffered losses due to excessive heat and drought during the 2010 growing season.

Farmers in New Jersey's Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Salem, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties may now access federal assistance programs for damages to their crops from the severe weather they endured.

"We are grateful for the relief being offered by Secretary Vilsack and for the swift action by Governor [Chris] Christie to help bring about the disaster declaration," New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher said in a Nov. 23 press release. "Our farmers faced many challenges during this growing season, and we all admire their perseverance and true grit they displayed under these harsh growing conditions."

The designation includes the contiguous disaster counties of Essex, Passaic and Union. The disaster declaration covers farm losses incurred from June 1 through Sept. 30.

"The excessive heat and lack of rain impacted many crops, including corn and hay," Paul Hlubik, executive director of U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency (FSA) in New Jersey, said in the release. "The disaster declaration will not only make farmers eligible for low-interest loans and restructuring, it also will provide direct relief through the Supplemental Revenue disaster assistance program to anyone who meets the eligibility criteria. We thank Secretary Vilsack, Governor Christie, Secretary Fisher and the State Board of Agriculture for making the designation possible."

In September, Sec. Vilsack declared a natural disaster for Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean Counties and the contiguous counties of Gloucester, Mercer, Monmouth and Salem, which were affected by winds, frost, freezing temperatures, hail and flooding from May 7 to May 31.

A natural disaster designation makes farm operators in both primary and contiguous counties eligible to be considered for assistance from the Farm Service Agency, provided eligibility requirements are met. This assistance includes FSA emergency loans and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program (SURE).

Farmers in eligible counties have eight months from the date of the secretarial disaster declaration to apply for emergency loan assistance, and the loans can cover up to 100 percent of the dollar value of the losses. Farms must have suffered a 30 percent loss in crop production or physical loss to livestock, inventory or property, and they must meet FSA's eligibility requirements. FSA considers each loan application on its own merits, taking into account the extent of losses, security available and repayment ability.

SURE program applications for 2010 crop losses will be accepted in the coming months, when the 2010 farm revenue data required by statute become available.