Farmers struggle with historic drought

Corn stalks struggle to grow in chalk-dry soil on Dale Mauch's farm near Lamar, CO. (Frank Morris/ Harvest Public Media)

It has been a very hot, very dry, and very unpleasant summer in the Midwest this year and farmers have paid the price. Thousands of counties throughout the region have been declared disaster zones, corn prices have skyrocketed and wildfires are prevalent. According to the Weather Channel’s report from the National Climatic Data Center, the drought this summer is one of the ten most severe in the last 100 years and the most expansive in the last half-century.

In June 2012, 55 percent of the contiguous 48 states were experiencing a drought with one-third of the country dealing with “severe” to “extreme” drought conditions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the entirety of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska were in at least “severe” drought conditions with pockets of “extreme” and “exceptional” drought conditions. This drought is one of historic proportions.

The worst drought on-record in both severity and area-covered was the drought of the Dust Bowl-era in the ‘30s. In fact, according to the Weather Channel, the two worst droughts in terms of area were in 1934 and 1939. In 1934, almost 80 percent of the country experienced drought, with 63 percent dealing with severe or extreme conditions.  The amount of area that dealt with severe drought conditions in July 1934 is almost double the area in severe drought this past June – makes you appreciate theGrapes of Wrath” a little more, doesn’t it? Luckily, thanks to modern farming practices, the chances of topsoil creating dust storms is considerably lower now than it was in the ‘30s.

The country was also rocked by drought in 1954. July 1954 saw the third-largest drought on record, while September saw the second most severe. 

Widespread drought struck again three decades later, in 1988, when half the country saw drought. Excessively dry air and high temperatures led to blazing wildfires that engulfed large portions of Yellowstone National Park. According to USA Today, the 1988 drought cost the United States around $78 billion adjusted for inflation, making it the costliest natural disaster in United States history up until Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The drought engulfing much of the country is nothing short of dangerous and on a similar scale to past disasters. Still, Americans have survived terrible drought before. And hey, if nothing else, at least you can tell folks on the coasts “It’s a dry heat.”