Drought Hits Farmers And Residential Landscapers

fromWOI

The drought is beginning to really sink its teeth into the Midwest. More than three-quarters of the nation's corn acres are in a drought zone. In Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, corn crops are burning up and its causing commodity prices to shoot up. Suburban residents are paying to water their lawns, but it isn't doing much good.

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We're also following a major story in this country, the worsening drought. It's affecting life in cities across the nation and also affecting the livelihoods of farmers waiting to see if they have a crop to harvest.

Here's Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Commodity broker Tomm Pfitzenmaier seems like a pretty relaxed guy in his Des Moines office. He's wearing shorts. He's got a pretty nice stereo - Bob Dylan's "Thunder on the Mountain" is playing. And with commodity prices skyrocketing because of the drought it's sometimes hard for him to remain calm.

TOMM PFITZENMAIER: By the time I change clothes and go to do chores, it'll be time to see what the markets do again.

MASTERS: Pfitzenmaier is the middleman between farmers and the companies that buy their crops. These high prices - right now corn's selling for around $7.80 a bushel - would be good news to his farmer clients, if they produce a crop this fall. And that's a big if. While the price keeps climbing, the USDA's crop ratings keep plummeting. Right now, only 31 percent of the nation's corn crop is rated good to excellent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And then obviously there's an impact on the consumer too, as if it forces the liquidation of livestock herds, then all of a sudden meat prices go up and there's all the products that you buy in the grocery store that use corn. You know, there's some pretty broad-reaching ramifications, not to mention profitability, and farms, and tax revenue to the state.

MASTERS: National figures released earlier this week say only in the 1930s and '50s has a drought covered more land. Illinois and Indiana's crops have been hit probably the hardest. In Nebraska, the Department of Natural Resources has ordered farmers in the irrigation-heavy state to shut off the water. And the drought is in city's too. Randy Beavers is the CEO for the Des Moines Water Works. He says the dry conditions are unlike any other year he can remember in his three decades with the department.

RANDY BEAVERS: In a way, we're headed to uncharted waters.

MASTERS: No pun intended. Alex Margevicius is with Cleveland's Water Department.

ALEX MARGEVICIUS: Yesterday we pretty much peaked at the highest we've seen all year, and that was at 300 million gallons a day.

MASTERS: This summer is the driest in northern Ohio in nearly a century, but city sits on Lake Erie, and Margevicius says unless his equipment breaks down, they should be able to keep up with increased demand. Des Moines water supply relies on two nearby rivers. Beavers, with the Des Moines Water Works, says is the river level continue to go down, they'll have to rely on a never-before-used reservoir north of the city called Saylorville Lake.

But now signs line that reservoir warning of an unsafe algae bloom, and if the department has to tap that resource, it will complicate the treatment process.

BEAVERS: Once it's treated it will be perfectly safe. It could end up causing us to feed a little more chlorine and folks might notice a chlorine taste - more of a chlorine taste than what they do currently.

MASTERS: Drive down any residential street in Des Moines and it's lawn after lawn of brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWNMOWERS)

MASTERS: A mowing crew in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale is finishing up along a bypass. Owner Roger Huggins says at this point they're just mowing dust and weeds.

ROGER HUGGINS: This week we were only doing half of Urbandale, what we're normally doing.

MASTERS: Nearby, the lawn and landscape company, Perficut, employs around 150 people in the summer. Production manager Doug Fulton is standing by a large black truck with a big hose hookup and a chute at the top.

DOUG FULTON: It's made to push mulch up the side of mountains, so it'll probably throw water out, I don't know, on a good day with a little wind behind you, fifty yards.

MASTERS: Using it this way will strain the motor, but Fulton says he'll just have to eat the repair costs because most of the places they contract with are guaranteed green landscaping.

FULTON: We were on an irrigation division too, and you would think it would be thriving right now, but you even get to the point to where people just give up after they see thousand dollar water bills and their grass is still stressed.

MASTERS: With no immediate end in sight, it appears no one is safe from this extended dry stretch, and while the term dust bowl is all but whispered, it's too soon for that kind of talk, though this severe drought could reshape much of the country for years to come. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

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