Nebraska drought 'a daily battle'

As politicians spin global warming into an esoteric debate topic, Nebraska's drought is a daily battle for farm families.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 30, 2006

"Ponds and streams dry up, our lakes are at record lows, and pasture is under incredible stress."

—Russ Seger

As politicians spin global warming into an esoteric debate topic, Nebraska's drought is a daily battle for farm families.

Writer Karen Ott describes life under this drawn-out disaster that gets only tiny dribbles of media coverage. "In our part of the world there aren't endless discussions on the evils of greenhouse gasses, or arguments concerning the pitfalls of burning fossil fuels. There are just the daily battles of real life."

For Ott, who says she's "an ordinary 50-something farm wife trying to stay sane during hard times," writing is a way to communicate with the outside world. She pens a weekly column called "Face of Drought" for the state department of agriculture.

The rest of the nation should pause and read its future in the cards Nebraska is holding, Ott says.

"I guess you could say ours is to play the role of the canary in the mine, to be a warning signal, like the melting ice caps, for the rest of society," she writes. "Like the poor little canary which collapses from toxic gases long before miners are even aware of the danger, drought stricken farm families are predicting, in some small way, what the world will someday look like."

Nebraska has been under drought conditions for seven years. Last summer, wildfires forced hundreds of people to evacuate. They came home to 60,000 acres of charred grass and forests.

Even in good times, Nebraska is home to some of the nation's poorest counties. Most of Nebraska's "Panhandle" - the northwest portion of the state - is still considered frontier, said Russ Seger, a United Church of Christ minister in Chadron. "There are more cows than people," he said.

Drought has stretched this area's already-limited resources. "Ponds and streams dry up, our lakes are at record lows, and pasture is under incredible stress. To accommodate these losses, ranchers reduce herds which in turn filters up through the entire economy."

The aftermath of last summer's fires is now reverberating through Seger's community.

"These losses put even more stress on the ranching community," he said.

Two of his church families have sold off entire herds since the fires. "In one family's case they have been running cattle for nearly 100 years."

The emotional loss, he said, is sometimes greater than the economic downfall. Still, people keep their pain to themselves.

"The people here are very hardy and seldom will ask for help," he said. "But like the woods, if you look closely, the scars of years of living on the edge are evident."

People are leaving Nebraska's small towns. "Farms simply employ fewer people than they once did and therefore provide less economic activity in small towns," explained Roddy Dunkerson, conference minister for the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ. "The drought has made that process worse."

Nebraska is fielding the wreckage from the collision of rising costs per acre and relatively level prices for grains and other farm products. "There is a movement to try to increase demand by increased production of ethanol, but it is not clear whether this will really be a sustainable market," he said.

Emotional stress and legal questions are the top two reasons people are calling the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline created by Interchurch Ministries. Farmers are living so far on the financial edge that any weather condition - from drought to a localized tornado - can bring on a breaking point.

"A lot of times they need to come up with certain yields to meet their debt," said Michelle Soll, a farm hotline paralegal. "We've noticed that we've had quite a few calls this fall over individuals asking us for financial planning."

Drought is more than a bottom line figure on a checkbook register. It's in the very air, writes Ott, who describes "drought sunrises...a sun the color of blood and scarlet horizons slashed and burned by angry purples and oranges. If you've grown up in this part of the world you can read that sort of sky like a Gypsy fortune teller reads palms. It's a predictor of niggling afternoon winds, the sort that chaps the lips, dries the skin and paints every blessed thing, outside and in, with a thin coating of gritty dirt."

Drought might ebb and flow but it is not going away, said Ott and others. "If things don't change for the better there's going to be an empty, fire-blackened strip running through Middle America from Texas to Canada," she writes.

Still, day-to-day life also offers a closeness and community that's rare these days, and Nebraska residents are not letting go or giving up. Ott spent a recent Saturday at her church making homemade noodles and butterballs. "Yep, it is annual soup supper and bake sale time again. By late afternoon my back will ache and my legs will be dead tired, but I will have spent the day in good company. Who could ask for more?"

The fragile seedlings of hope are still growing, agreed Seger. "This is a good land, and we will not give up," he said. "The rain will come."

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