The DustBowl Cometh
Hope Dries up in the Heartlands
 The sun spun through the broad prairie sky, day after day after merciless day. The corn wilted. The soybeans withered. Those farmers who had wells drew on them day and night, spraying each parched field with 300, 400, 500 gallons of water a minute--every minute, around the clock, for months. All that water scarcely dampened the soil. Most evaporated before it hit the ground.

Drought has seared much of America's breadbasket barren this summer, burning millions of acres of corn, beans and sorghum. There won't be much of a harvest this autumn. Nor much of a planting season. In many of the country's most fertile plains, farmers will scatter their wheat seeds this month on soil as dry as concrete. 
The drought, as bad in spots as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, has broken spirits. And it has prompted reflection--unhappy reflection--about the future of farming in these vast, rich plains when the only money to be made comes from handouts. 

Even in fine weather, grain farmers in the heartland rely on federal subsidies to make ends meet. Usually, they can point to the bursting bins of inexpensive food they produce as justification for the aid. This year, though, thousands have little to show for their government checks--just rubbery ears of corn pocked with five or eight desolate kernels, just stunted stands of soybeans with yellowing leaves. 

The subsidies feel, more than ever, like welfare. 

"How do you not feel embarrassed?" asks Robert Drees, a farmer here in western Kansas. 

The Senate last week approved $6 billion in emergency disaster aid for farmers and ranchers stricken by drought. Farm families are begging a reluctant House to take similar action. The truth is, though, that many can't see an end to the emergency. The drought may ease. But these months of ferocious sun have brought home the stark truth of their predicament. 

With a bumper crop or with no crop at all, they are dependent. 

"They've spent a lot of time crying and praying," said Kathy Bosch, who counsels farm families in Nebraska. "They've lost their sense of control." 

Nearly half of all farm income comes from the federal government these days. That figure fluctuates from year to year, depending on commodity prices, but it's been rising steeply since 1996 and is now near a record high. Nationwide, the average annual subsidy is more than $36,000. Many of the larger producers, who carry hundreds of thousands in expenses for seed, fertilizer and equipment, get more. In Kansas alone, dozens of farmers received subsidies topping $200,000 last year. A handful took in more than $500,000. 

Drees stares out the window of his pickup. The purple dusk deepens into another rainless night. 

Autumn is usually a joyous season for him, the brimming loads of corn, alfalfa and sorghum sweet payoff for months of sweat. This year, though, his emotions are as blistered as his land. He planted 1,200 acres of sorghum on "dryland" fields that aren't irrigated; they depend on summer rains for water. More than half of those fields produced crops so sparse, he won't bother to harvest. On the remaining acres, he'll be lucky to get 10 or 15 bushels to the acre. His standard yield is 70. 

Drees would welcome emergency drought aid. Yet he's ashamed to be asking for it, especially in a recession that has so many Americans hurting. 

"We start sounding like a bunch of never-ending whiners with our hands out," he says. 

The 1996 Freedom to Farm bill ended a decades-old system of paying farmers not to plant. The goal was to wean rural America off subsidies. It failed. Free to plant whatever they wanted, farmers produced way more than the market could bear. Prices plunged and taxpayers ended up fronting farmers more than ever. 

The new farm bill, passed this year, keeps the subsidies flowing. It will cost $180 billion over the next decade. 

"How do you tell the computer engineer who just lost his job that farmers need billions more subsidies?" Drees said. "How do you tell the person who had his whole retirement in Enron stock?" 

Drees, 44, farms the land that his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather farmed before him. He is the first to figure federal subsidies into his annual business plan. He won't say how much money he gets. He will say it seems like an awful lot for one man, though without it, he'd never break even, much less support his family. 

"I don't want to say that we've lost our pride," he murmurs. "I didn't get into this business to get government payments. But I don't see how we can survive without." 

He pauses. "If there's a way to say thank you to the country, I'd like to say it." 

The drought shows up on weather maps as an angry swirl across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, the Eastern Seaboard. 

The National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., reports that two-thirds of the United States is gripped by at least moderate drought. More than 40% of the nation's land mass is suffering drought classified as "severe" or worse. 

In the last few weeks, the darkest blotch on the map--designating "exceptional drought"--has receded slightly. A few, much-blessed rains have fallen. Some land has been reclassified from "exceptional" to merely "extreme." 

Extreme is plenty bad. 

From southern Montana through Arizona, from the California desert to the Kansas plains, many communities report this year's rainfall at 40% of normal. In western Nebraska, this is the most arid year ever recorded--and records stretch to the 1880s. 

In western Kansas, it's possible to dig 12 feet without hitting a trace of moisture. The state's hardiest crop, the sunflower, can send roots down an impressive 8 feet. This year, that's not far enough. 

Precipitation in the Garden City area is running about 50% of normal, and much of that has fallen in the last few weeks--too late to help the wheat harvested earlier in the summer or the corn that will be picked this month. Many soybean fields too are beyond salvage. 

"There's no way we can over-emphasize how serious this is," said Barry Flinchbaugh, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. "It looks like the Great American Desert." Indeed, some fields in southwest Kansas are carrying less than 3% of their water capacity. 

"Basically," said Mary Knapp, the state climatologist, "that means you wouldn't be able to tell [the soil] from concrete." 

As farmers like to point out, even the hardy yucca--a desert plant--is dying. 

Grazing ranges across the West are so parched, the federal government has let ranchers bring their livestock onto millions of acres that were set aside as wildlife habitat. Even so, countless ranchers have had to sell off their cattle, unable to feed them. 

So many baby birds perished in South Dakota that the fall pheasant hunt--a $100-million industry--will be severely crimped. Biologists can find just two to three pheasants per square mile across much of the state. In a good year, there might be 14. 

And the farmers? Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota says they're losing $5 million a day in his state alone. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota speaks of farm wives forced to visit food banks to fill their cupboards. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson sounds shaken when he talks of walking fields that are brown instead of green: "To go to farms that have had crops, some good, some bad, but crops every year for 70 years, and then to see that this year there is no crop for the first time ever, is an eye-opening experience." 

Like other agricultural disasters, this one is likely to drive some family farmers off the land. 

Kansas bankruptcy attorney Bill Zimmerman said this summer has been busy: "I've seen more farmers and ranchers than I've seen in years." And most agricultural bankers don't start calling in their loans until winter. 

"It's only going to get worse," he predicted. 

Crop specialist Roger Stockton knows the despair: He has spent the last several weeks trudging through fields in northwest Kansas, advising farmers whether it's worth it to keep watering their crops. 

"In most places, it's been pretty clear-cut. There's no hope," he said. 

Early projections indicate that the national corn crop will be down 6.5% this year and the soybean harvest will drop 9.1%. The numbers are far worse in the West. Here in Garden City, farmers are bringing to the grain elevator only about half their usual harvests of sorghum and wheat and just two-thirds of the customary soybean haul. 

"There's nothing there," said Carl Setzkorn, who farms 270 dryland acres in west Kansas but will harvest next to nothing. Worry lines, creased deep, tug at his face. 

Another local farmer, Dallas Savolt, has abandoned 1,300 acres of dryland corn. "We won't pick any of it," he said. What few stalks have grown, he'll leave in place, hoping they'll anchor the soil to keep it from blowing away this winter. 

Even on some of Savolt's irrigated fields, the corn is almost worthless. In a warm dusk the other evening, he watched from his pickup as a harvester ground up the pathetic ears for silage, a low-grade cattle feed. 

"What does it feel like? What do you think it feels like?" said Savolt, 27. "It feels like I should have went to college and done something else with my life." 

A billboard on Interstate 70 boasts that the average Kansas farmer feeds "128 people, plus you." Folks here are proud of that statistic. 

While they may feel uneasy about receiving subsidies, they point out that the payments help keep food cheap. The only way they could stay afloat without aid, they argue, would be for commodity prices to double or even triple. That might happen if the supply of grain fell. But farmers feel trapped in a vicious cycle: Their profit margins are so slim that they push to squeeze ever more corn out of an acre, ever more berries out of a sorghum plant. The abundant yields keep prices low. So farmers race to produce ever more. 

They grumble that they need a union, a national grain cartel to limit the harvests. Then they stop themselves. They know they would never join. Too stubborn. Too independent. 

The ironic result: Their determination to go it alone ends up forcing them to turn again and again to the government for help. 

Years when the weather cooperates, they need almost as much aid as they do in a drought, because bumper crops bring disastrous prices. 

"The past few years, prices were so low, we would have been better off not planting anything at all, just taking the government payment," said Russell Schartz, 68, who farms 600 acres near Ingalls, Kan. He shrugged. "That's what farming is these days." 

And that's why Robert Drees feels ashamed. 

Years like this, when he doesn't have much of a crop to show for the taxpayer money he collects, he wonders whether he's worth the investment. Whether farming the Great Plains is any way for a proud man to live. 

"That's the emotional part of this drought," he said. "It's a real roller-coaster ride. You think about it every day." 

Drees has urged his three sons to seek a different life. Yet he can't bring himself to leave the land. Not yet. His ancestors built this farm. His neighbors measure him by its success. 

So, for now, he stays. He harvests the scrawny ears of corn his fields produced this summer. He ponders how deep to plant his wheat in the dusty clods that pass for soil. He scans the horizon for rain. 

By Stephanie Simon


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