Drought conditions are seriously impacting farming and public water supplies across more than 25 states, causing economic impacts in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to officials across the nation.
"Traveling around the state I hear other farmers complain that it's a little dry," said Buddy Hance, deputy secretary of agriculture for Maryland. "But I tell them, 'You haven't seen dry.' For my career in agriculture, this drought is certainly going to rank up there as one of the worst. Time will tell which one is the worst."
Hance lives in Calvert County in southern Maryland, where the dry conditions have impacted the state the hardest. A fourth-generation farmer, he grows corn and soybeans and said his crops are past the point of no return.
"The corn crop is pretty much to the point where rain won't help it much," he said. "It's getting near the end of its maturity stage. The soybeans are near the end of pod development and it's a critical stage for rainfall. They've got a little potential if we get some rain, but the long-range forecast is not very optimistic."
He said as much as two-thirds of Maryland is in a "significant drought." The state just received a disaster declaration from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which allows farmers to apply for low-interest loans.
Farmers in Maryland aren't alone.
The USDA has issued drought disaster declarations in counties throughout Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has also asked for a federal disaster declaration to help farmers in 52 counties in his state deal with drought conditions.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, produced weekly by the National Drought Mitigation Center, shows much of the Southeast in the grips of a drought. Drought ratings across Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida and Kentucky range from "severe" to "exceptional." Much of the eastern Midwest and Mid-Atlantic have drought ratings of "moderate" and "severe."
"Generally speaking, we're seeing crop loss estimates ranging anywhere from 30 to 80 percent depending on the crop type," said Tom Womack, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. "It's hard to put a dollar figure on it all until the harvest season."
Womack said the hardest hit sector was hay and livestock production. Cattle farming, a $500 million industry in Tennessee, was the state's number one source of farm income, he said.
"We're estimating anywhere from 70 to 80 percent loss on pasture and hay production," he said. "We depend very heavily on natural sources of forages. Year in and year out we're a green state and we get a lot of rainfall. We have good soil production for grasses and clover. We depend on that natural source of pasture and hay production to be able to supply our cattle industry.
"The bottom line is, not only is the drought affecting crop production, it's also affecting livestock as well," Womack said.
He added that an early freeze decimated much of the state's fruit crop, making the drought the second farming disaster in one season.
"That affected crop development early on," Womack said. "It destroyed a significant portion of fruit and vegetable crops, including strawberries and apples. Those were all a large loss. It also affected our nursery industry."
He said what was making the drought even worse was that it was affecting all 95 counties in the state.
"Usually we will endure some weather-related problems regionally in the state, but to have it affect the whole state like this is unprecedented," he said.
Hance said farmers know to expect bad seasons from time to time, and he said he hoped most of them had crop insurance for such situations. For those who do not or those who have insufficient insurance, the USDA declaration will allow for loans.
"We hope the farmers have taken out crop insurance and have done some things to provide stability to make it through this," he said.
Womack said he hoped this year's drought will prompt more farmers to participate in the state's drought mitigation programs that can help with irrigation systems and more.
The drought was also impacting public water supplies in states including Florida and California. In Florida, Lake Okeechobee - which provides the majority of South Florida's water - remains near record lows.
On July 3, the 730-square-mile lake was at the lowest level ever, only 8.83 feet. The lake was hovering around levels that are four feet lower than the historical average for this time of year.
Much of the southern part of the state was under water use restrictions.
"When we talk about water supply, we've got to think of drought and water shortage as two different things," said Jesus Rodriguez, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). "Drought is meteorological. You could make a case that we're coming out of that now, but we're still in a water shortage. It's a consequence of the drought. That's frankly where we still are at this point - still in a very serious regional water shortage."
Rodriguez said when the state's agriculture department briefed his organization on the drought's impact, its estimates showed that the livestock and horticulture industries may experience a $525 million direct hit.
"In terms of economic impact, lost jobs and lost dollars in the economy, they're estimating more than $1 billion in terms of the overall economic impact of the drought," he said.
Residents in Southern California, where conditions are the driest, have one positive situation.
"This year in Southern California they set records for lack of precipitation," said Michael Anderson, a climatologist with the Department of Water Resources. "However this is different from past droughts from the point that last year in the Sierras we had our fifth wettest season on record. We entered this year with reservoir conditions as high as they could be."
Anderson said that the region had been entering a drought season under the best conditions possible, especially as local water management districts increased their groundwater storage capacities in the past year. While that bodes well for this season, he said, if the upcoming rainy season doesn't produce enough moisture, then 2008 could be bad.
"We're kind of riding on that cushion so far," Anderson said. "The impacts have mostly been on ranchland so far. If we get another one of these we won't have that nice cushion from the previous year."
At the national level, the total farmland impact is not as bad as it may appear. Brad Rippey, agricultural meteorologist for the USDA, said the largest corn and soybean producing regions were not experiencing droughts.
"The bottom line is - the important thing to drive home - is that much of the Midwestern U.S., has not had a bad dry season," Rippey said.
As for the regional impacts, he said those account for the almost 47 percent of the nation currently in a drought. He agreed that it has taken its toll on rangelands and pastures. The double hit of the early freeze and drought in the Southeast took its toll on the fruit and vegetable industry.
"A lot of specialty crops were hit," he said. "The peach production this year is at 36,000 tons, when usually at this point it's around 150,000 tons. That's a reduction of more than three-fourths of the peach crop in an 11-state area of the lower Midwest and Southeast. It looks to be similar for apples."
The loss in hay production will hurt farmers in the Southeast, he added.
"There's not a lot of hay there and they'll have to pay to import it from somewhere else," Rippey said.
As for the fall, the drought outlook is mixed for some areas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center released its seasonal drought outlook in early August. From now through October, it said the drought situation was expected to improve in parts of the Southeast, including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and southern Mississippi. Dry conditions may worsen or persist for Tennessee, Kentucky and northern Mississippi, it said.
In the West, there was more bad news. The drought was expected to persist or intensify in Nevada, California, Idaho, Utah and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Montana and Oregon, the report said.
As government officials encouraged more farmers take part in the insurance and aid programs available to them, Tennessee's Tom Womack said this was also something that farmers get used to as part of their lives working the land.
"Farmers are resilient," he said. "They understand that weather is an inherent risk in farming."
Watching his own crops wither, Hance agreed.
"As a farmer, it's one of those things you know you're going to go through," he aid. "Every so often you're going to have a drought and lose a crop."
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