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Drought squeezes farmers


"Many are not talking to each other. They're enduring it on their own."

—Nathan Koflowsky

Drought is wringing the life out of farms and the hope out of farmers in both Canada and the U.S.

After two extremely dry years in Canada, beef and dairy farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan can't find feed for their cattle. "Some people from surrounding provinces were selling hay at quite inflated prices," said Nathan Koslowsky, spokesperson for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) in Canada.

Then Ontario government officials sent 60 boxcar-loads of hay that were given out on a lottery system.

It didn't even come close to meeting the need, said Koslowsky. "The truth is, there's not enough hay to go around. All the hay in Ontario and Manitoba wouldn't do it."

And good rains through the winter won't solve the problem, he added, because the financial effects for farmers are devastatingly long term. "They're selling off cows. They're forced to sell them at reduced rates."

Some farmers have simply let their cows loose onto community grazing land.

Some suicides have been attributed to the hardship brought by the drought, said Koslowsky, yet even as communities hear this news, farmers are still trying to go it alone. "Many are not talking to each other. They're enduring it on their own."

MDS, which has a long track record of responding to farm disasters, is exploring a response in Canada.

Meanwhile 26 states in the U.S. are in the throes of a severe drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. Droughts are ranked severe in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

Mennonites have been working with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and the Navajo Emergency Management Agency in drought-stricken New Mexico to collect and transport hay to those most impacted.

"We're in a hundred year drought right now," said Beatric Rivera, chair of the New Mexico's Drought Task Force.

"Livestock producers are in some cases liquidating entire herds, which could have major tax and market implications," added New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Frank DuBois.

As faith-based groups and local churches respond, local leaders are also trying new ways of getting helpful information out to farmers. More than 200 locations - some groups of people and some individuals -- logged onto a Web cast last month covering drought management offered by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture and New Mexico State University's (NMSU) Cooperative Extension Service. (Those interested in future Web casts should contact their local extension agents.)

Webcasts can reach more people quickly, said Patrick Sullivan of NMSU. "We're talking about one evening versus a traditional program where 4-5 people travel to 20-30 people at one place," he said.

Most U.S. states have also formed drought management task forces to ensure accurate information about drought conditions is put out in a coordinated way. Drought this summer has hit many states in the west, Midwest and east alike.

Planning a response to drought is tough, acknowledged Michael Anderson from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "We've seen faith-based organizations respond more in floods than droughts," he said. "The main problem is, historically, it has been a little harder to find when a drought starts. And then it's not amenable to immediate solutions. It does humble you a little."

In Iowa, farmers are under varying degrees of drought stress, said Douglas Hjort, who represents the United Church of Christ national disaster ministries network in Iowa. Hjort pointed out that drought is a disaster that has a negative ripple effect. "A drought-stressed plant -- because it builds up toxins -- can become a deadly issue for cattle."

In the face of such widespread drought, farming in many states has become a tremendously stressful way of making a living, he added. "It's a big risk. It's not like General Motors building a car and selling it. A producer can't control prices."

Suburbanites aren't immune to the effects of drought. In Colorado, which is in its worst drought in a century, Denver suburbs have implemented tough new water restrictions. Mandatory restrictions in Denver and Aurora are the cities' first in 21 years.

Denver's water resources, serving 1.1 million customers, reached an all-time low in July, registering 63 percent full compared to 80 percent during the same period a year ago. Aurora's reservoirs are at 48 percent of normal compared with 81 percent in July of last year.

The city of Denver even has humorous water conservation ads telling residents to "Only Wash the Stinky Parts" and "Instead of Washing Clothes, Don't Wear Any."

In Utah, cattle are dying from the stress of being moved from one paltry pasture to another.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman declared all of Utah an agricultural disaster area. The state is in the grip of a four-year drought. Farmers and agriculture industry companies -- farm equipment providers and the like -- are diving into economic ruin.

How can people help? By conserving water no matter where they live, said Anderson. "People should check their normal use on things like lawn watering and car washing, and cut back a little. We ask entire towns to do the same thing."

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Related Links:

New Mexico statewide list of extension offices and phone numbers

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