PENDLETON - Oregon State University Extension Service officials who alerted state and federal officials of a drought developing in eastern Oregon expect many farmers to apply for federal loans, now that eight counties are likely to be declared natural disaster areas.

"People are comparing this to the drought of 1977," said Mary Corp, a cereal crop specialist for the OSU Extension Service office in Pendleton in Umatilla County.

Floods, hail, late freezes and a lingering drought have prompted Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to ask the federal government to declare eight Oregon counties natural disaster areas. Kitzhaber signed a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman Monday, asking Glickman to declare Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Baker, Morrow and Umatilla counties disaster areas at the urging of local OSU extension and Farm Service Agency officials.

Glickman in July granted Kitzhaber's request to declare Harney County a disaster area because of flooding there in February. Kitzhaber also asked in July that Union County be declared a disaster area because of large-scale crop failures brought on by late freezes in May and a freak hailstorm in June.

Wasco, Sherman and the other four counties have since seen a lingering drought that dropped wheat yields by 75 percent of the five-year average normal yield.

If Glickman declares the counties disaster areas, eligible farmers and ranchers could apply for low-cost loans, said Matt Haynes, an agronomist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The failure of dryland crops such as wheat and grasses are estimated at $22.6 million in Umatilla County, Corp said. Magnified through the general economy of the region, the loss grows to $49 million. The reason for the losses stems from a quirky winter weather pattern that deluged western Oregon and dumped a snowpack in the mountains that was 127 percent of normal. Yet the rain and snow stopped at the mountains, leaving most inland desert regions dry.

Farmers who irrigate row crops actually had too much water brimming over Malheur and Harney lake beds, while dryland farmers didn't see rainstorms needed to germinate and plump seed heads. As a result, dryland wheat, winter range and barley yields plummeted.

David Chamberlain, chairman of the OSU Extension Service office in Harney County, predicted that some long-time farmers and ranchers will try to ride out 1999's losses without seeking federal aid.

"These folksĀ¼are selling a few cows or looking to buy some hay. That's not to say that there aren't some folks hurting pretty bad," Chamberlain said. "Prices have been low for several years."

Frank Harkenrider has lived all of his 72 years in Hermiston, where he has been mayor since 1990. He's seen the droughts of 1961 and 1977 and he said any drought is worrisome.

"Water is lifeblood of this whole area," he said.

Local farmers are worried that the greater attention on the drought in the Midwest, New England and Atlantic states will mean that relief to the Northwest farmers will be slower in coming.

Federal drought relief involves a back-and-forth series of communications and approvals between local, county, state and federal agencies. To be eligible, farmers have to demonstrate sustained crop losses of more than 30 percent below their five-year average yields. Economic losses are calculated on the same basis.

Glickman has proposed establishing the "coordination of drought management through a single government agency, enhancing crop insurance and a rapid response-style program to provide immediate relief in emergencies."

If Glickman grants swift approval of the disaster declaration, farmers have up to eight months to apply. Whether the money comes quickly or not, the continuing drought is an immediate concern for next season.

"A lot of farmers are waiting for rainfall before they will be able to seed," Corp said. Unless the rains come soon, the ground will be too dry for seeds to germinate.

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Mary Corp, 541-278-5403