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Drought squeezes Midwest farmers

BY RACHEL CLARK | NORFOLK, Neb. | October 1, 2002

"Farmers maybe have one-fourth of their winter feed needed to winter their animals."

—Vern Steinman

It was unusually warm in Norfolk, Neb. this week. But the 76-degree dry forecast was nothing new to farmers who have been stricken by a drought the past two years.

"The response to the drought was prompted by concern for farmers who had to start feeding their winter hay to livestock as early as July this year," said Robert Houser, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Central Nebraska. "Many organizations are working together to try to bring not only hay, but we still hope to maybe bring some grain to supply hay to help farmers with feed through winter."

According to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, some areas in Nebraska did not receive any rain for several months this summer. Without rain, hay and grain didn't grow. And without hay and grain to feed their cattle, farmers are faced with selling their livestock. Disaster response, government, state and community groups have banded together to create Operation Hay Lift, a program that aims to ease the burden of drought-stricken farmers.

So far, the group has raised about $90,000 to harvest, bail and transport donated hay. Last week, they provided 1,800 tons of hay to 89 farmers. They have 358 requests left to fill.

"The drought is severe," said Vern Steinman, who is a volunteer manager of Operation Hay Lift for Orphan Grain Train -- a Norfolk-based Christian humanitarian aide and disaster relief organization. "Farmers maybe have one-fourth of their winter feed needed to winter their animals. In some areas, it's been a two-and-three-year drought."

Volunteers are hoping the donated hay will get farmers through the winter, and survive what many are calling dust bowl like conditions.

"If nothing else, it gives the farmers hope to hang on for a while longer," said Houser.

Many Nebraskan farmers are continuing a long line of farming traditions, Houser said.

"It's a way of life for these people and the thought of having to do something different is not only kind of alien, to them, it's kind of frightening because they can't imagine doing anything else."

Holding onto the hope that next year's season will be better can be the difference between success and failure, Houser said. Drought -- like any other livelihood-related affliction -- can lead to depression.

"I see some farmers who rely on their spiritual heritage and faith background to get them through," he said. "And there are some others that find it challenges their faith life to where they really question their faith."

Groups like the Farm Crisis Response Council, facilitated by Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, are offering counseling to farmers affected by the drought. The council facilitates the distribution of no-cost vouchers for confidential mental health services to those affected by the drought.

"The Interfaith Ministries has a hotline set up," Steinman said. "They have been getting calls in ... because it's a real problem."

In addition to faith-based response, the Nebraska government has sponsored livestock compensation and feed assistance programs. Since the United States Department of Agriculture declared the state a drought disaster, emergency loans are available for farmers.

CRP land, or Conservation Reserve Program land, is normally not allowed to be farmed because the state wants to prevent overuse. But because of the drought, the state is allowing farmers to graze and hay that land to provide for their cattle in the winter.

"We could take one-half of the forage off of those acres," said Steinman. "That's where we've been getting the biggest part of the hay relief."

Harvesting and transporting hay from CRP land -- and from private landowners who donate their harvest -- is done by volunteers.

"We have a massive harvesting operation that will go on this month," said Steinman. "This has been highly successful, but we just need more donations to keep on finding and buying hay and putting this process together."

According to Houser, Operation Hay Lift is comprised of the Presbytery of Central Nebraska, Orphan Grain Train, Mid-Nebraskan Community Action, Interchurch Ministry of Nebraska, Farm Bureau, Grain and Feed Association, New Holland Corporation, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Railroads.

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More links on Drought


Related Links:

Orphan Grain Train

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

State of Nebraska's Drought Central Web site

Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska

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