Drought devastates Eastern US farms

BY CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM | CHESTER, NY | August 5, 1999


CHESTER, NY (Aug. 5, 1999) -- Mark Roe has 30 acres of sweet corn on

his New York farm, but the stalks only come up to his knee. By this

time, they should be over his head. He can't irrigate, because his

pond went dry three weeks ago.

His 60 acres of apple orchards have been flogged with unrelenting sun

and heat. The apples are splotched with sunburn, and the leaves are

flagging. The Paula Reds should be some 3 inches in diameter by now.

They're a mere inch and a half at best. They should come off the

trees in a week, but at this rate they'll be worthless at market.

Roe is a sixth generation farmer on a 240-acre farm that has been in

his family since his great-great-great grandfather, William Roe,

established it in 1827. Born on the farm, Roe left it for only four

years, to study agricultural economics at Cornell.

But nothing at school or in the fields prepared him for the great

drought of 1999.

"This is the driest and hottest I've ever seen," says Roe, 63, toeing

the arid earth. "And that's a tough combination for the crops."

Indeed, Roe says he's already lost some 60 percent of his corn crop.

So goes the story among farmers all across the Northeast and

mid-Atlantic, as the second-worst drought of the century has left

ground drier than it has been since the Great Depression. From New

England to western North Carolina, farms are going bust, wells and

rivers are running dry, and drought warnings and emergencies have

been issued.

Farmers can expect some relief from the Department of Agriculture,

which declared West Virginia and parts of Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland,

and Pennsylvania federal disaster areas Monday. The declaration,

which followed a request from West Virginia and covers 89 counties,

makes farmers who have lost more than 30 percent of a crop eligible

for low-interest loans, among other programs.

Department of Agriculture officials said that without significant

rainfall in the next week most of the mid-Atlantic and parts of New

York and New England would also be designated for federal relief.

In Washington, President Clinton said Tuesday he would work with

Congress to provide $10 billion in drought relief.

What farmers really need is relief from the skies. The National

Weather Service's 6 to 10 day forecast predicts no rain in coming

days.

"There's no relief, at least not in the next week," said senior

Accuweather meteorologist Bernie Rayno.

No surprise to West Virginian farmers, who have endured low water

tables and low yields for over a year.

"This drought started last August," said Gus Douglass, commissioner

of the West Virginia Agriculture Department.

But only in the last six weeks has "everything really gone" downhill

said Douglass, who has a farm in Mason County run by his son. He said

he had just one inch of rain in the month of July. Statewide, 15-inch

deficiencies in rain have left more than $100 million in farm losses.

"First, we had 50 percent failure of hay crops," he said. "Corn

followed at a 60 percent loss. For vegetable growers, it's almost

been a wipe-out."

The drought, which will go on the record books here as the worst

ever, may spell the end for up to 10 percent of West Virginia's

21,000 farmers, said Douglass, "and that number could very easily go

up."

Aquifers are rapidly being drained. The south branch of the Potomac

River is at less than half of the record low from the 1930s.

Thirty-four percent of wells across the state have gone dry.

Thirty-five percent of farmers are hauling water for livestock,

bringing water from as far away as 25 miles.

Adding to farmers' miseries are the depressed prices of livestock,

hogs, dairy and grain. Hogs are off 80 percent from 1997 prices.

Livestock is off 30 percent.

Dairy farmers are especially susceptible to drought right now,

because of the low price of milk and beef. If no rain comes, they'll

be short of hay and feed this winter, and will have to buy supplies

from elsewhere, something that can be financially devastating.

Many West Virginia dairymen are already selling off cows to preserve

winter feed --- at prices their grandfathers could have fetched.

Douglass said he watched 2,000 head pass through a Parkersburg market

last week in a frenzied Saturday afternoon sale that didn't finish

until 6 a.m. the next morning. Normally, no more than 200 head would

be up for sale.

"This is desperation on the part of farmers," said Douglass.

One farmer openly wept as he brought in his cattle. "There's my

life," said the farmer. "I quit."

"We are trying to convince our farmers to hang on to their

livestock," said Douglass. "If they sell off the livestock, they're

out of business next year."

The drought comes on top of continuing recovery from three major

floods, one in the hundred-year-range, that swept through West

Virginia in 1997. Homes, roads, fencing and crops were heavily

damaged. Indebted from the recovery, many farmers have little or no

financial reserve.

"Farmers who are in debt are going to be in serious trouble," says

Roe, the sixth-generation New York vegetable farmer. "There are going

to be some farmers that aren't going to make it."

Roe is one of the lucky ones, however, because he's not in debt, and

he's got a seventh generation of family to help him out. "In my case,

I've got family help: two sons and a daughter, all of whom have

children and mouths to feed themselves," says Roe. "And my wife works

every day."

Posted Aug. 6, 1999


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