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Heat Wave, Drought Create ‘Grim’ Crop Yields for Farmers in Plains, South

August 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
New research by the National Drought Mitigation Center shows 12 percent of U.S. land is in the midst of an exceptional drought, which is the largest contiguous area to suffer such difficult conditions in 12 years. Ray Suarez discusses how the drought has punished American farmers with Harvest Public Media's Frank Morris.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, an unusually hot summer has magnified the dry conditions throughout much of the country, and it’s taking an especially tough toll on farming.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Many areas in the Southern U.S. and southern Plains are suffering from parched pasturelands, wilting and dying crops, and a loss of livestock.

Huge wildfires have swept across tinder-dry trees and forests in several states over the past few months. Now new research by the National Drought Mitigation Center shows 12 percent of U.S. land is in the midst of an exceptional drought, the largest contiguous area to suffer such difficult conditions in a dozen years.

The hardest-hit states are Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, with 100 percent of each state experiencing drought. Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina are also very dry, with 95 percent of each of those states showing drought as well.

We take a closer look now at the impact this is having on farming with Frank Morris of KCUR Public Radio and Harvest Public Media, a local journalism center dedicated to agricultural reporting. He joins us now from Kansas City, Mo.

And, Frank, it’s midsummer. It’s hot. It’s always hot. So what’s different in extent and degree about this summer?

FRANK MORRIS, Harvest Public Media: It’s record-breaking in Texas and Oklahoma and parts of Kansas.

You’re seeing — in Texas, you see the driest February to June on record. In Oklahoma, you’re seeing the hottest weather since 1936, and hottest and driest since 1936, the height of the Dust Bowl. In Kansas, there are some places that — where it’s barely rained in a year. You’re talking about an inch or just a little bit more precipitation.

So, the whole soil system is just completely bone-dry powder down as far as the subsoil goes.

RAY SUAREZ: Are we talking about farming areas now where they’re not just expecting lower yields or lower-quality product, but looking at the possibility of losing entire crops?

FRANK MORRIS: Well, they have lost crops. I mean, in the wheat harvest in Texas and Oklahoma — and, again, southwestern Kansas was terrible. They have given up on corn.

You know, what they’re doing, Ray, is they’re baling dead corn stalks in Texas and even Missouri and Oklahoma and Kansas, baling it up to feed the cattle because there’s not — there’s no cattle feed otherwise grown locally.

So, yes, you have lost the hay crop, two or three hay crops. Usually, you cut that four times. You’re lucky to get one cutting this year. The wheat crop was terrible. The corn crop is abysmal unless it’s irrigated, and even there, they’re — a lot of farmers are having to give up on half the irrigation circle in order to — because they can’t pump the water out of the ground fast enough and get it on the — and to allow the corn to grow as it should before — they can’t get it on fast enough while the thing is going around the circle.

So it’s pretty grim out there in the southern Plains.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the next crops, the plantings for later this year? Are they in trouble as well?

FRANK MORRIS: They sure are.

The wheat crop is supposed to go in — you would — normally, you would start planting that maybe next month and in through November. This year, the ground is so dry, it’s like powder. So the wheat won’t be able to germinate unless they — they get some good rains.

Out in western Kansas, they called that dusting in. You know, I dusted in 140 acres today or what have you. That means they’re planting the corn in powder that’s so dry, it can’t possibly grow. And to do that, you have to double down and plant — or — corn — I’m talking about wheat.

You have to double down and plant extra seed, maybe twice as much as normal, because you know that the growing season is going to be shorter, so you won’t have time to get the kind of yields you want. That means you need to spend more money and really hope and make a bet that you will get some rain later.

RAY SUAREZ: The federal government is often looked to in times like this. Can farmers in this part of the country expect any help from the Congress?

FRANK MORRIS: Oh, well, absolutely they will get help. I mean, there are layers of disaster programs. There’s federally subsidized crop insurance that’s already paid at least $200 million into Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma, and that’s just the beginning. That’s for the wheat crop.

But, normally — or in the last few years, Congress has come up with something else as sort of a package for disaster aid on top of all the other ones. You know, it typically ranges $1 billion or $2 billion. And nobody is expecting to get that this year, especially with crop prices high, as they are, farmers mostly are coming off pretty good crops, in most of that area anyhow, at least from last year.

RAY SUAREZ: How long until we see this in the supermarket, in lower prices for livestock that’s being slaughtered earlier than it should have, higher prices for livestock that is eating more expensive corn? Are we consumers going to see this very soon?

FRANK MORRIS: I don’t think you’re going to see it very soon.

The cattle that are going to slaughter now in — early, they’re going in lighter and — and earlier than they normally would in the southern Plains. Those sales are up dramatically, and it’s especially hitting the little guys. Some of them are having to liquidate because they just can’t find food for their cattle.

But the system is pretty flexible. And so you have other parts of the country where it’s wetter holding back. So there’s not going to be an amazing shortage of cattle, although the cattle herd is at the lowest levels it’s been since the 1950s.

So, eventually, when you are culling the herd more, that supply is going to get tighter. How much that raises the price is, you know, a very hard thing to calculate.

RAY SUAREZ: And the forecasters aren’t offering much hope in sight.

Frank Morris, thanks for joining us.

FRANK MORRIS: Thank you, Ray. A pleasure to be with you.