Drought Bakes Much of South, Periling Crops
By Jo Thomas, The New York Times, June 16, 2000
VALPARAISO, Neb., June 15 -- The pond on Dave Barry's farm, once six feet deep, has dried to a mud puddle, and the purple flowers on the surrounding alfalfa are an ominous sign.
The alfalfa "should reach two feet before it blooms, but it's only four inches," Mr. Barry said today as a hot, dry wind ruffled the stumpy plants. "It's fit for a lawn mower. It's done."
Here in eastern Nebraska, in a swath of the Gulf Coast from Florida to New Orleans, in the hills of West Texas and in Georgia and Alabama, pockets of extraordinary drought, by some measures the worst in a century, are baking farms and homes.
In Florida, alligators are roaming out of lakes and ponds that have all but disappeared. In southeast Louisiana, rice crops and drinking wells are being ruined by salt water that has seeped into the parched aquifer. In West Texas, ranchers are selling off goats and sheep as the grasslands dry up. In Georgia, the red soil is baked hard as concrete.
Here and there this week, the first rain in months has fallen. But far more will be needed and the damage is already done for many farmers.
John Saichuk, a rice specialist in Louisiana State University's Cooperative Extension Service, says salt water infiltrating the depleted aquifer is killing crops and could ruin the soil and next year's crop.
In Concho County, Tex., Lance Rasch, the county extension agent, said most ranchers had liquidated their herds, with only 25 percent of the livestock left compared with four years ago. Some large ranches have no livestock, he said.
But not just farmers are feeling the effects.
In the lush suburban neighborhoods of Tampa, Fla., and Atlanta, "water police" roam, enforcing restrictions on watering lawns.
Parched communities in northern Florida have become tinderboxes, with almost daily brush fires in several counties. The smoke from one brush fire that raged just outside Orlando this month set off fire alarms in a downtown hotel.
Despite the severity in some areas, the effects are not as widespread as in some past droughts.
"This is not a drought of national geography," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said.
Mr. Glickman said the drought had not affected prices and production of major crops like wheat, corn and soybeans or pushed up food prices, as a nationwide drought did in 1988. "I don't believe we're going to have that."
Nevertheless, where the drought has hit, it has hit uncommonly hard. Mr. Glickman said there was little precedent for the weather's extreme volatility in recent years, with severe dry spells and then torrential rain and floods. "That's what's unusual -- those intense weather patterns," he said.
Keith Collins, chief economist at the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, saw serious effects on production of peanuts and cotton. In Alabama, which produces 10 percent of the nation's peanuts, growing conditions for 83 percent of the crop are poor, indicating sharply reduced harvests.
In Georgia, source of half the nation's peanuts, 28 percent of the crop has been caught in such conditions. In Texas, source of a third of the nation's cotton production, the department says 21 percent of the current crop has been struck.
Farmers in parched areas who rely on irrigation have been hit doubly hard, by the drought and the rising cost of oil to drive the irrigation systems. Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, said that in the state's southwestern corner, the cost of irrigating wheat has jumped from $100 an acre to $200.
On Wednesday Gov. Mike Johanns of Nebraska declared a state of emergency and sought aid for the most stricken counties.
Allen Dutcher, the state climatologist, says the drought began in the southeastern corner of the state in the middle of July last year.
"It wasn't really until the month of September that we saw everyone in the state go dry," Mr. Dutcher said. "It was eight weeks before anyone got precipitation at all.
Then it was dry again until February."
Nebraska wheat farmers depend on fall and spring rains to build up moisture in the soil.
With no rain, farmers found themselves needing 25 inches of rain in a growing season that typically provides 18.
"The pastures didn't respond this spring," Mr. Dutcher said. "We didn't have the moisture for growth when it was cool, and the temperature skyrocketed in May.
We had 100 degree readings."
"The next thing that went down was the wheat crop," he said. "Harvesting will begin this week, but our yields in a lot of places will be 50 percent or less. In the southeast, a lot of people are cutting the wheat for grazing, as supplemental cattle feed."
On Wednesday, the governor said he would allow farmers in 46 counties to harvest grass along state and federal roads to feed their animals.
"With the lack of moisture and the hot, dry winds, there's a lot of fear," said Merlyn Carlson, Nebraska's director of agriculture. "As streams decline, we may have to restrict irrigation."
Nebraska has 13 million acres in corn, sorghum and soy beans. And 55 percent to 60 percent of it is irrigated.
"Center-pivot irrigation has to run 24 hours a day," Mr. Dutcher said. "There's no moisture in the soil to rely on. Irrigators will not be able to keep up with crop water demands. "
Mr. Barry, who farms 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa, was operating water pumps on his farm today, but only for 60 acres.
"The price of fuel makes watering corn that sells for $1.60 a bushel a waste of time," he said. "Without rain, we'll have to water for 60 days, and we'll lose $1 a bushel."
He has already moved his 160 cows, with their calves, to pastures where it rains, 280 miles away, at a cost of $2 a mile.
As he drove away from his rock-hard alfalfa fields, which yielded only a fourth of their usual harvest this spring, he passed Conservation Reserve Program pastures, held in reserve for soil conservation and wildlife.
Today the federal government released them for use by farmers who want to rent them for grazing.
"It's too late for us," Mr. Barry said. "I've moved my cattle. People south of Lincoln sold theirs two weeks ago."
Roadside haying, where farmers can pay to harvest hay along state and federal roads, will begin next Monday and "could help some," he said. "But there's bottles and cans and broke-off tree stumps.
You ruin as much equipment as you make in hay."
Unless rain falls soon, southern Alabama could face the driest first half of a year in this century.
Already, Alabama has been scorched by the worst drought since the 1950's with rainfall a foot below normal in some areas this year and two feet below over two years.
Gov. Donald Siegelman has declared a state of emergency in 19 of Alabama's 67 counties.
Faye and Joe Williams raise corn, cotton, peanuts, grain sorghum for their cattle on 1,000 acres in Newton, in the heart of the drought in southeast Alabama.
In a normal year, the 5-foot, 3-inch tall Mrs. Williams could hide in her corn stalks. This year, she noted, "It's up to my waist." She added: "We didn't plant as much cotton as anticipated. We got all of our peanuts planted but about a third came up." She said the farm had two streams that had gone dry.
"Farming has got way out of balance too," she said. "Everything we have to buy is up, up, up but the prices are at a standstill level."
On his farm near Montezuma, Ga., Lynmore James cannot graze his cattle on barren pastures, and the earth is baked hard.
"You can't dig a hole" Mr. James said. "You can't get anything to scratch the surface."
"We could get the blues, but we try to keep in good spirits," he added. "We go to church and we meet and talk about our problems."
But there are signs of hope.
Much needed rain fell today in southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, but unless the thunderstorms continue for days or even weeks the rainfall will not be enough.
On June 7, the first real rain in months fell on Tampa, and people rushed outside to watch and to celebrate. Thunderstorms are forecast.
"I would think once the rainy season has begun, we might catch up slowly," said a cautious Eric Oglesby, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service at Ruskin, Fla.
In east Nebraska rain is spotty.
It may rain an inch in Lincoln, as it did this week, and only a few drops will fall on Mr. Barry's farm. "It's going to take a miracle to make a corn crop," he said. "Ten inches have to go into the ground in the next ten days. An inch isn't going to do us any good."