By JIM SUHR
ST. LOUIS (AP) - More than half of U.S. counties now are classified by the federal government as natural disaster areas mostly because of the drought.
The U.S. Agriculture Department on Wednesday added 218 counties in a dozen states as disaster areas. That brings this year's total to 1,584 in 32 states, more than 90% of them because of the drought.
The latest additions make drought-affected farmers and ranchers eligible for federal aid including emergency loans.
The USDA also announced ranchers may access some 3.8 million acres of conservation land for haying and grazing, and crop insurance companies have agreed to provide farmers a penalty-free grace period on insurance premiums in 2012.
Counties included in the announcement are in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming.