Half of US Counties Now Disaster Areas Drought has ravaged much of the nation By Kevin Spak, Newser Staff Posted Aug 2, 2012 10:06 AM CDT 12 comments Comments A field of soy beans, left, meets drought-damaged corn in Mead, Neb., Tuesday, July 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) (Newser) – The worst drought in decades has officially ravaged more than half the counties in America. The USDA declared 218 counties across a dozen states natural disaster areas yesterday, bringing the total number of counties bearing that distinction to 1,584, the AP reports. The disaster designation makes farmers and ranchers in those areas eligible for federal aid and emergency loans. The Department of Agriculture is also trying to ease the pain by opening 3.8 million acres of conservation land to ranchers for haying and grazing. "The USDA cannot make it rain, but it can apply flexibility to the conservation practices," said one senator from South Dakota, which has 39 counties on the list. Crop insurers have also agreed to give farmers a 30-day grace period on their premiums.