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New drought forecast adds to farm unease

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON | March 14, 2000

WASHINGTON (March 14, 2000) - The drought that has gripped the south

and mid-west is likely to intensify this spring, according to a

report released Monday by the U.S. Departments of Commerce and

Agriculture.

The potential threat to crops and water supplies is concerning

farmers, disaster response groups, agriculture organizations, and the

government alike.

Spring planting is beginning with "a sense of unease and a real

wondering," said the Rev. Faye Fedlam, pastor at the Presbyterian

Church in Sidney, Iowa. "Everything seems a bit off-kilter to people

right now. Winter was unusually warm, too," she said, adding that she

offers prayers for farmers during the Sunday services and also

ministers to them through personal visits.

The hardest-hit states are expected to be Arizona, Texas, Louisiana,

Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia,

Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. Some parts of the hard-hit

Mid-Atlantic states are also expected to be impacted by the

continuing drought.

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama experienced their driest February

in 106 years.

Stream flows east of the Mississippi River are well below normal for

this time of the year. Scientists blame the dry weather on La Nina,

the weather pattern related to cooler-than-normal temperatures in the

eastern and central Pacific Ocean. La Nina is expected to linger for

at least several months.

"Drought has been a worry," said Trish Shliefert, a member of

Immanuel Lutheran Church in Louisville, Neb. "Our pastor is offering

special prayers" for the rural congregation of 400.

In Nebraska, until two weeks ago, the soil was dry down to five feet

in post holes, wetlands were withering, and springs had shrunk to a

trickle. Nebraska went eight consecutive weeks without measurable

precipitation, from Sept. 15 to Nov. 15. Then, from Sept. 15 through

the end of January, the state received 25 percent to 30 percent of

normal precipitation.

Some early spring snow and rain quelled farmers' fears for the

short-term but not for the long-term. Most of Nebraska and Iowa have

had little precipitation -- less than a third of normal in Nebraska

and half in Iowa from mid-September through Feb. 1.

Forecasts now indicate that the likelihood of getting the needed

moisture is about 20 percent in Nebraska and 30 percent in Iowa.

Nebraska is working on a new drought mitigation plan that looks ahead

to address drought concerns. Only New Mexico has such a plan now.

Agriculture Department officials say it is too early to tell how the

drought will impact food prices. However, more than 60 percent of the

winter wheat crop in Texas is rated no better than poor.

In that state, just as long-term recovery from severe flooding in

October 1998 is nearing completion, response organizations may have

to turn their attention to drought-related needs.

There and elsewhere, the drought could affect not only farmers but

ranchers as well. Severe drought usually means farmers and ranchers

can't harvest hay, which leads to feed shortages for their livestock.

Many mid-Atlantic farmers are facing such a shortage this winter. The

Family Farm Drought Response, an ecumenical coalition, is responding

to farmers' needs in that region. Currently, that coalition is

coordinating a hay lift in which 27 train carloads of donated hay are

being delivered from Michigan to some 200 farmers in the mid-Atlantic.

If the dry spells intensify, eventually food for people will have to

be transported as well. "If drought gets severe enough, some regions

of the country will have to truck in food from somewhere else," said

Ted Quaday, spokesperson for Farm Aid.

Quaday said he hopes that drought forecasts will help people become

more aware of how disasters can affect farmers - and also more aware

of how their food is supplied. "The more people understand about how

their food is produced, the more willing they'll be able to support

family farmers," he said. "That lack of awareness is a tragedy of the

way we live today. Production and consumption are so far removed."

If the public would become more aware of the challenges facing

farmers, it would strengthen the social structure within communities,

he added, possibly making them more disaster resistant.

The United Methodist Church is also trying to build more cohesion in

rural communities through its Rural Life Sunday program which offers

materials for churches to celebrate new rural landscapes that have a

variety of cultures and lifestyles.

Kath Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition based in Washington,

said that public awareness increases when a disaster such as a

drought or a flood occurs. "Natural disaster helps focus public

attention on farmers," she said.

"People have to realize that when disaster - like too much or too

little rain - happens nowadays, it's in addition to record low

prices," said Ozer.

But residents of farm communities acknowledge that, sometimes, it's

hard to respond on a personal level because farmers won't always talk

about their worries. "My dad is a farmer and he was kind of worried

about the drought but he doesn't say much. It's hard to know what

farmers are thinking," said Ann Hoppe, who grew up on a farm in

Syracuse, Neb.

"Farmers don't want to say anything. Few of them are vocal," agreed Fedlam.

Posted March 14, 2000


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