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Nebraska's drought worsens

Farming has not been this tough in Nebraska since the days of the Dust Bowl. For three years, record low precipitation has shriveled up farmland around the state.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | February 22, 2003

"We're telling people here is prepare for the worse but hope for the best."

—Al Dutcher, State Climatologist

Farming hasn't been this tough in Nebraska since the Dust Bowl.

For three years, record low precipitation has shriveled up farmland around the state. In some areas, reservoirs are down to 25 percent of capacity, and the state's hay stocks are at their lowest since 1957.

According to State Climatologist Al Dutcher, the drought started as early as September 1999 for some parts of the state, and hasn't really let up until this past month.

But it's not clear whether the recent precipitation means the drought is over, or "whether it's just a wet period in a dry cycle," Dutcher said. "It makes it hard for us to say whether we're having an easement of this drought."

The people suffering the most, of course, are Nebraska's farmers.

Those who do depend on irrigation ? about 70 percent of corn-growing land is irrigated in western Nebraska ? are likely to find their canals drying up.

"Our reservoirs are in serious, serious shape," Dutcher said.

Lake McConaughy, the state's largest, is currently at 41 percent of its capacity. That is the lowest level ever recorded since the creation of the lake with the damming of the North Platte in the 1940s, he said.

Unless irrigation is tightly restricted, there is a real possibility that Lake McConaughy may go dry this spring or summer.

As for the river itself, "we fully expect that the Platte will go dry again this year," Dutcher said.

Those who don't rely on irrigation, such a livestock farmers, are in even worse shape.

With "good, timely rainfalls," Dutcher thinks agriculture in Nebraska might make a come-back.

But for southwest Nebraska, where reservoirs are at 25 percent of their capacity, the future looks pretty bleak.

"Really we're telling people here is prepare for the worse but hope for the best," Dutcher said. "We'd say that this drought is far from over."

Even with normal to above-average precipitation, Dutcher thinks the effects of the drought will likely be felt for more than a year.

"The whole state is declared a disaster area," said Merlyn Carlson, director of the Nebraksa Department of Agriculture. "It's a very persistent drought and a very stubborn recession."

Carlson said federal aid has been helpful (Congress recently passed a farm bill which appropriated $3.1 billion in drought assistance to mid-western states), but Nebraska farmers will have to look to new farming methods in order to survive.

Planting alternative crops -- such sorghum, or certain strains of corn which require less water -- is one strategy, Carlson said.

"We now have varieties of corn that will be less dependent on rainfall as well," he said.

Ranchers have been hit even harder by the drought, he said, since their grazing lands are not irrigated and depend solely on rainwater. Many ranchers have had to sell their cattle or pasture them in other states.

But Carlson said he tries to preserve an optimistic outlook, despite the gloomy forecasts.

"We hope that's not right, and we hope that something changes," he said.

There has been some hope for farmers, thanks to the shipments of hay from the Orphan Grain Train, a Nebraska-based humanitarian group that usually provides international aid.

The Rev. Ray Wilke, founder and president of the Orphan Grain Train, said his organization has sent out 306 tractor-trailer loads of forage for ranchers in Nebraska, as well as for a few in Iowa and Illinois. Each shipment is worth more than $2,000.

"Guys were selling their cows," Wilke said. "We got a lot of calls. We got calls day and night, mostly from farm wives who were in tears because their farms were going under. We had four, five trucks on the road all the time."

Wilke estimates the Orphan Grain Train will have paid out about $750,000 on the project.

"In some ways, it helped save the cattle herds," Wilke said. "The result is a lot of these guys are hanging on. If they get some spring rains, they're going to make it."

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