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An 'agonizing process,' farmers watch drought destroy crops

Many farmers in southwest Nebraska are struggling to raise a corn crop. This unirrigated field south of Stockville, Neb., will make little, if any, crop. (Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)

Stephen Wright is praying for rain. And he’s hoping the heat will break soon, too. Because watching the mercury rise is like death by a thousand cuts, each degree a new wound.

Wright farms corn and soybeans and has a small cow-calf operation in north-central Missouri. He’s just one of many farmers watching their crops whither in the midst of historic drought and high heat, powerless to stop an unrelenting assault by Mother Nature.

“It’s an agonizing process,” Wright said. “It’s not something that just hits you one day like a hurricane and you go back out and see how bad it was. It’s daily for quite a long time.”

Farmers throughout the country are having a rough go of it. Last week, the USDA declared drought-related disaster areas over 1,000 counties reaching through 26 states. A drought disaster can only be declared after an area has suffered through severe drought for eight consecutive weeks during growing season.

Drought is hammering farmers from Indiana south to Arkansas and into Missouri and again from western Kansas through Colorado and into Utah and Wyoming. About 80 percent of the contiguous U.S. is classified as being in drought status, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. This time last year, in the height of the heat season, just 37 percent of the country was battling drought.

Wright says it’s possible he’ll lose 50 percent of his corn crop this year, though he’s hopeful he could salvage more if the heat breaks soon. Some farms in his area though, won’t even be that lucky.

The ground was dry and the air was hot in Stockville, Neb., in early July. (Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)

“Some fields, you go around, maybe they did get pollinated, they absolutely have had no rain and they just burn up,” Wright said. “The corn’s turning white from lack of rain.”

Analysts are already saying this drought is the worst in a generation and has many farmers looking back to tough stretches in 1988 and 1980. The latest report from NOAA says this drought is the worst since the ‘50s. Some are worried that it will force food prices up to record levels and further damage a struggling U.S. economy.

Take a look at the drought map and you’ll see a major chunk of the Corn Belt is in trouble. In Nebraska, farmers who use river water to irrigate have been ordered to stop to combat plummeting river levels.

The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources says the shutdowns are necessary to protect water rights. But Mike Goossen, who farms near Beatrice, Neb., is hoping for rain to allow the restrictions to be lifted.

“If we got a big rain upstream, Seward, up there, and that brought the water level up then we could irrigate,” Goossen said. “We’re just at the mercy of the weather now.”

Paul Hay, a University of Nebraska extension educator, says farmers in his part of southeastern Nebraska noticed that the Big Blue River was dropping and knew what was coming.

“For last week and this week, I think we’re going to be OK,” Hay said. “Beyond that, I think the pain will start.”

If the drought continues, Hay estimates yields for crops fed by surface water in Nebraska could fall by 40 percent or more. It’s not much better in Iowa, where two-thirds of the state is in drought condition.

It’s not just row crop farmers that are left up a creek without both a paddle and flowing water. Many ranchers have been forced to sell of large portions of their herds because they just can’t get feed them properly. Brown pastures and shrinking irrigation ponds have left them no choice.

Farmers battling the drought and the heat can’t do much. Wright said he has kept busy and made sure to stay out of the sun during the middle of the day as much as possible.

“As long as we’ve got hope – you try to look at the positive side, because if you don’t it sits there and eats at you gradually,” Wright said. “As you watch your crop sit there and deteriorate, it works on your own constitution. You’ve got to be positive is all.”

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Harvest Public Media's Grant Gerlock contributed to this story.