FRESNO -- President Obama came to the Central Valley today to discuss California's historic drought, opening the federal government's checkbook and making tens of millions of dollars in aid available to struggling farmers and communities.

Obama, whose plane touched down at Fresno Yosemite International Airport at 2:40 p.m., unveiled a $183 million aid package that includes money for ranchers in California who have lost livestock, communities that are running out of water and farmers that need help conserving scarce water resources.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the president was delivering a "message of hope" to Californians and assuring them that the federal government will do all it can to alleviate stress brought on by the drought.

"We're trying to send a very specific message to producers that we are here to help to the extent that we can," Vilsack said.

Starting in April, Central Valley ranchers will be able to apply for $100 million in livestock disaster assistance funding that was approved by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill. They can use the money to replace livestock who have died or purchase feed.

Normally, it takes more than a year for ranchers to get access to those relief funds, Vilsack said.

Ranchers and farmers will both have access to $5 million in U.S. Agriculture Department funds to implement water conservation programs, reduce wind erosion on drought-impacted fields and improve the access of livestock to water. Another $10 million will go to farmers and ranchers in other drought-impacted states for the same purpose.

Projects to stabilize dry stream banks will get $5 million in federal funds, and small community water districts set to run out of water in the next 60 to 120 days will be able to apply for a total of $3 million in grants.

Vilsack said Obama is also committed to helping individuals and families feeling the drought's pain.

The president will make $60 million in Agriculture Department funds available to food banks in California's driest towns, and students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch during the school year will be able to eat meals at 600 locations in drought-stricken areas this summer.

An hour before Obama was set to land at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, dozens of vehicles had pulled up to a long stretch of cracked asphalt across from a fenced section of the runway to watch him arrive on Air Force One.

Some came to this spot -- known among locals for its great views of arriving and departing planes -- on bicycles and motercycles on this unseasonably warm, 75-degree February day. Many Fresno-area residents sat in lawn chairs or the hoods of their cars, waiting to get the first glimpse of the presidential plane through binoculars or a telephoto lens.

Nikki Donnelly, 41, and Jim Donnelly, 64, brought collapsible camping chairs to set up in the bed of their silver Ford F-250 truck to watch the president's arrival.

"When will he ever be here again?" said Nikki Donnelly, from Madera.

The Donnellys don't own a farm or ranch, but living in the Central Valley, everyone is connected to the agriculture industry through friends or relatives, so everyone is feeling the effects of the state's historic drought, she added.

Nikki Donnelly said she has been through droughts before, but this is the first time she has been fearful that the water might actually run out.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it, and it's about time the president comes out here to look at what we're going through," Jim Donnelly said. "We're feeding the country. Someone ought to give us the water to do it rather than protecting some precious fish you can't even see."

Doug Mellecker's family sold its ranch 25 years ago, but he's familiar with the anxiety farmers and ranchers feel now with the crippling drought's end nowhere in sight. The fact that the president decided to visit the valley signals just how bad the drought is this time around, he said.

"The weather has been freaking out all over the place. There's snow and rain everywhere but here," said Mellecker, who biked to the long, skinny parking lot to watch the president's arrival. "If the farmers here can't irrigate, food prices will soar, and I can hardly afford my groccery bill now. There's going to be a domino effect that no one wants to see."

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/calefati. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.