AP Food and Farm Writer
WASHINGTON - The government promised nearly $800 million in aid Tuesday to ranchers and farmers stricken by a near-record drought.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced the aid while visiting a ranch in South Dakota, one of the states hardest hit by drought and heat. Farmers are struggling in the Plains, the South and, to a lesser degree, the Upper Midwest.
''As I walked a pasture where grass should be high and growing and cattle grazing, I saw only dirt,'' Johanns told reporters by telephone. ''In western Plains states, livestock producers are making very tough choices because of lack of green pastures.''
The secretary said 64 percent of the nation's beef cows and breeding stock are in drought-stricken areas and many ranchers are being forced to cull their herds. Drought is also stressing fields of cotton, wheat, sorghum, peanuts and other crops.
Last month was the hottest July since the Dust Bowl in 1936. Drought has approached records in many parts of the country, where conditions have been driest from May through June since 1988.
The drought peaked two or three weeks ago, Agriculture Department meteorologist Brad Rippey said. Some places have gotten rain recently, but not enough.
''The rains came too late for summer crops,'' Rippey said. ''It takes pastures and rangeland a long time to recover from such a serious summer of heat and drought. So we're just now beginning to see some of the pastures to green back up a little.''
Johanns outlined the $780 million in drought aid:
•$50 million in block grants for hard-hit livestock producers. States will distribute the money to ranchers in counties with ''extreme'' or ''exceptional'' conditions recognized by the national Drought Monitor.
•$18 million in emergency conservation funds to rehabilitate farmland in 27 states.
•$11 million from the grassland conservation program for grazing lands in 14 states.
•The department would accelerate $700 million in planned payments to cotton, grain sorghum and peanut farmers.
The aid is on top of $4 billion in crop insurance the government expects to pay out this year.