As farmers across our State enter their busiest time of year, they again face difficult circumstances. Just one year ago, farmers battled record floodwaters during planting season, resulting in an estimated $516 million in economic losses. Now, nature has swung in the other direction, bringing drought and leaving farmers to struggle with abnormally dry conditions. More than 80 percent of Arkansas is now in a severe drought, according to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
I have already requested a disaster determination from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for 13 Arkansas counties. Such a declaration can help our farmers shore up their operations with emergency loans as the harsh conditions significantly damage their crop yields. After this latest drought report, I anticipate many more counties will become eligible, and we will expand our request accordingly.
Farming in Arkansas is older than Arkansas herself. Agriculture remains a foundation of our state's economy, employing more than a quarter of a million people, and accounting for approximately one of every six jobs in our State. In fact, on a percentage basis, Arkansas agriculture's contribution to our state's gross domestic product is nearly double that of the national rate.
Seven years ago, the Arkansas General Assembly established the Arkansas Department of Agriculture to coordinate state services for our farmers and growers. Richard Bell was chosen to lead the department, and he is widely admired for the abundance of knowledge and experience he brought to the position. Before this post, Bell had been the president and CEO of Riceland Foods, Inc. in Stuttgart, and had also spent time as an assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
During Secretary Bell's tenure, the Arkansas Agriculture Department has received and administered $88 million in new grants, 80 percent of which were federally funded. Dick Bell announced his retirement this week, and I thank him for his service to Arkansas.
Agriculture in Arkansas and throughout the country faces additional challenges with looming federal budget cuts. Already, proposed cuts to the federal Farm Bill have proven contentious and drawn opposition from Arkansas's congressional delegation. With reduced spending a priority in Washington, D.C., federal assistance long depended on by farmers may soon be leaner and structured differently.
There are bright spots, however. Farmland values are rising. The Arkansas Century Farm Program is giving special recognition to families who have worked in agriculture for generations in our state. And, even in the ever-changing business of farming, Arkansas remains constant in our unwavering commitment to agriculture, part of the economic backbone of our State.