Oklahoma's Parched Land Needs Massive Rainfall

fromKGOU

Many areas of the country are suffering from "exceptional drought" conditions. That's the most intense level assigned by the federal agency that monitors droughts. Unusually dry conditions are creating ever expanding hardships for farmers and ranchers from New Mexico to Kansas. Oklahoma has been especially hard hit.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Now, for farmers and ranchers from New Mexico to Kansas this heat wave is not just a temporary hardship. It's the latest blow in a year that has been unusually dry and is threatening their crops and herds. From Norman, Oklahoma, Kurt Gwartney of member station KGOU has our report.�

KURT GWARTNEY: The digital sign above the barn door at the farmer's market in Norman, Oklahoma reads 94 degrees, and it's only 9:30 in the morning. By late afternoon the number reads 104. It's been triple-digit hot in Oklahoma for more than a month, and the conditions are not expected to let up anytime soon.

And while the high temperatures have moved from Texas to Minnesota and Virginia, the drought that is limiting supplies of crops from tomatoes to peaches at this farmer's market had its start last fall.

Dakota Skinner with Hayley's Peach Farm is selling peaches imported from east Texas because the trees at his orchard don't have enough water.

Mr. DAKOTA SKINNER (Hayley's Peach Farm): Well, it all started back last September, when we had low amounts of rain. What peaches we do have the heat and the lack of rain is just frying them.

GWARTNEY: Toni Dennis installed a way to catch rainwater on her farm. But even the 15,000 gallons of water she captured from the isolated thunderstorms that have moved through the central U.S. in the spring hasn't been enough.

Ms. TONI DENIS (Farmer): We've really suffered with the loss of our tomato plants. We've put in over a thousand tomato plants and we literally have sold seven pounds of tomatoes this year. By now we probably would have sold probably a couple thousand pounds.

GWARTNEY: Livestock producers are also being hit hard by the drought. About an hour east of Oklahoma City, just off Interstate 40, Richard and Lisa Hefner walk across the pasture that's supposed to feed the cattle on their 4,000 acre ranch. The drought has turned the usually green and tough Bermuda grass into crispy shards, which means there is very little water in the soil and that could mean an end to their cattle business.

Mr. RICHARD HEFNER: We don't want to liquidate the cow herd at this point in time. We still hold out hope that we'll have some late summer, early fall moisture and allow this to come back.

Ms. LISA HEFNER: The one thing I think about when I see all the dry crispy and I hear it under my feet, and I'm thinking, why are we still sitting here in this life, we could be doing maybe something. We both have college educations. We could be doing something a little more. But we love this place.

GWARTNEY: The Hefner's cattle huddle in clumps under widely scattered trees on the ranch, the only splashes of green in an otherwise khaki-colored landscape. A few cotton ball clouds drift between the sun and the parched earth, providing a bit of relief from the 100-plus degree heat. Ponds dotting the land are rimmed with wide gray lines of hardened mud as they continue to dry out, confirming the exceptional drought level assigned to Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana by federal officials.

(Soundbite of gate closing)

GWARTNEY: As Richard closes the gate to the desiccated pasture, we head into a small air conditioned office, where Lisa Hefner wonders about the drought and her children's future.

Ms. HEFNER: What I see when water goes down, I see my children, for instance. I have a daughter that's graduated from college and she's come back to work with us. And you get this kind of stress that she sees us going through and the decisions and hard decisions we're having to make. Will that young person stay in this business? That's a true drought then.

GWARTNEY: Climatologists say this drought is in its infancy, and they don't know when it will end. But they do say it will take a tropical storm or hurricane to dump enough rain on the area to return moisture to the thirsty earth.

For NPR News, I'm Kurt Gwartney in Norman, Oklahoma.

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