Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced a package of program improvements that will deliver faster and more flexible assistance to farmers and ranchers devastated by natural disasters.

Vilsack announced three significant improvements to decades-old USDA programs and processes related to Secretarial disaster designations: a final rule that simplifies the process for Secretarial disaster designations and will result in a 40 percent reduction in processing time for most counties affected by disasters; a reduced interest rate for emergency loans that effectively lowers the current rate from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent; and a payment reduction on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands qualified for emergency haying and grazing in 2012, from 25 to 10 percent.

"Agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation's economy and it is increasingly important that USDA has the tools to act quickly and deliver assistance to farmers and ranchers when they need it most," said Vilsack.

"By amending the Secretarial disaster designation, we're creating a more efficient and effective process. And by delivering lower interest rates on emergency loans and providing greater flexibility for haying and grazing on CRP lands, we're keeping more farmers in business and supporting our rural American communities through difficult times.

“With these improvements, we're also telling American producers that USDA stands with you and your communities when severe weather and natural disasters threaten to disrupt your livelihood."

A natural disaster designation makes all qualified farm operators in the designated areas eligible for low interest emergency loans. The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to designate disaster counties to make disaster assistance programs available to farmers and ranchers. Previous to these changes, the process had been in place for more than two decades and regulations had not been substantively revised since 1988.