In the face of an ongoing drought in much of the U.S., the Agriculture Department is rolling out increasingly strong measures to help farmers.

The USDA has now declared 42 percent of all U.S. counties as disaster areas, making them eligible for low-interest loans. It’s also opened up conservation and wetland areas for grazing, and landowners will now be able to sell hay harvested on conservation land, something Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said is unusual.

“Given the breadth and severity of this situation it may very well be an opportunity for individuals to provide help and assistance to their neighbors who are suffering,” he said.

The announcement of the new measures yesterday was the second in as many weeks. Vilsack said the USDA expanded its previously announced aid for farmers after a meeting with President Obama about the drought last week.

In addition to offering more access to protected land and better terms for government loans, the USDA is also calling on crop insurance companies to extend their grace period for the year’s first payment from late September to late October.

Still, Vilsack said his department has only limited tools at its disposal. He called on Congress to pass the Farm Bill before its summer recess, restoring disaster assistance programs that expired last year.

“There’s nothing more important to rural America,” he said.

Reuters reports that analysts see the passage of the Farm Bill as unlikely this year. Republicans in the House are pushing for major cuts to programs including food stamps while Democrats are resisting those changes.

Meanwhile, another Reuters story notes that, while this is the worst drought since 1988 and will actually probably be worse than that year in terms of financial losses, farmers are likely to emerge from it in better shape. That’s because U.S. farmers are benefiting from high grain and land prices, low debt and much stronger agricultural insurance policies than they had 24 years ago.

Photo credit: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visits Eric Cress’s farm in eastern Iowa. USDA photo by Darin Leach/Flickr.