UPDATE: Vilsack warns of the ripple effect of drought - KTIV News 4 Sioux City IA: News, Weather and Sports

UPDATE: Vilsack warns of the ripple effect of drought, Dakota City meat plant could be hard hit

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Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack talks to farmers about help available for them after the drought. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack talks to farmers about help available for them after the drought.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to get a handle on the scope of this year's devastating drought by going straight to the source.

Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Omaha trying to get a sense of the total impact the drought will have nationwide.  It goes well beyond the farm.

Speaking to farmers, food processors, and small business owners, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called this the worst drought anyone can remember, and said the consequences will last a long time.

"We do not have the capacity that we had last year to provide help and assistance to our livestock producers," said Vilsack.

Two-thirds of the country is under a drought.  That's 89% of the nation's counties and Siouxland is smack dab in the middle.

"You can see that we're kind of in the heart of the wrong colors," said Nebraska's Ag Director Greg Ibach.

While most growers saw their crops shrivel up under the summer sun, officials say it's livestock producers, who are really feeling the heat.

"It starts with livestock producers because feed prices went up dramatically," explained Vilsack.

When livestock producers are hurting so is everyone else down the food chain.

"All of the businesses that are supported by those farmers and ranchers, suppliers, packers, shippers," said William Koontz, of the Small Business Administration Office of Disaster Assistance, adding that the number of requests for small business loans is up.

The Union representing workers at the nation's packing plants are predicting major losses too.

"These are our communities that we work in, and we have a lot of sympathy for the farmer, and the producer, and the rancher, but the drought effects don't stop there," said Mark Lauritsen, the International Vice President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union:"

The United Food and Commercial workers Union tallied up the total loss of wages because of cutbacks in production at their top 15 beef plants in the nation.  A Siouxland packing plant tops the list.  According to the UFCW, Dakota City's Tyson plant stands to lose nearly $12-million.  That's two million more than the next largest plant, JBS, and nearly double that of the Cargill Plant in Schuyler, Nebraska.  Vilsack warned of other ripple effects.

"The impact on tourism for just an example, the impact on energy supplies, the impact on water resources for communities," said Vilsack.

It's too early to put a price tag on the pain Mother Nature's caused this year, said Vilsack.  However, he added that it will be a lot worse if Congress doesn't pass a farm bill.

"This is why we need a safety net. How do you as a producer, in the midst of drought, potentially a multi-year drought, how do you go to your banker, and basically convince them to provide you the credit to put a crop in the ground or continue your operation if you don't know what the safety net is going to be?" Vilsack pointed out.

The USDA will hold three similar meetings in Ohio, Colorado, and Arkansas to develop regional plans that will help shape the federal government's national response to the drought. 

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