Effects Of Midwest Drought Spread Across Nation

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Frank Morris, managing supervisor, Harvest Public Media
Mark Svoboda, monitoring program area leader, National Drought Mitigation Center

The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that more than 80 percent of the continental U.S. is either in a drought or considered "abnormally dry". Farmers and ranchers in the corn and soybean belt are feeling the effects, and the impact is rippling through other economic sectors as well.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. The worst drought in decades is causing pain across more than half the nation. The corn and soybean belt has been hit especially hard, but the impact goes well beyond.

From Nevada to Georgia, South Dakota to Texas, drought conditions range from moderate to severe to exceptional, and with more hot and dry days on the horizon, the fallout could intensify. What is your drought story? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR's Keith Woods joins us to talk about the difficult conversations that arise, or don't, when someone makes a racist comment. But first, Frank Morris is the news director at member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. He's been following this story and the impact of the drought on agriculture. Welcome.

FRANK MORRIS: Thank you, Jennifer, good to be here.

LUDDEN: Frank, well, I want to start with some tape that you've provided us. You have spoken recently with Nathan Pike(ph), who's in western Kansas. Tell us about who he is.

MORRIS: Nathan Pike is a guy who was born in the Dust Bowl and has lived on this ranch with his closest neighbor being two miles away, which he considers pretty close, for most of - he's lived in the area his entire life and on this ranch all his adult life. And he has had to cull his cattle herd significantly because he doesn't have feed. He doesn't have food for them.

His grass that never dies, his buffalo grass, his native short grass, prairie grass, has died, most of it has died.

LUDDEN: All right, let's give a listen to Nathan Pike.

NATHAN PIKE: Well, I was born in a drought, and I've been through several, but this one is probably the most damaging one I've seen. I've never seen buffalo grass die. And it has.

LUDDEN: So what is he doing, Frank Morris?

MORRIS: Well, again, he's had to sell off a large part of his cattle herd, and he got a pretty good price for the cattle. He was satisfied with the price, but since then the price of cattle has gone up, and he's afraid he's going to get locked out of the market. So he's...

LUDDEN: You mean he won't be able to get back in?

MORRIS: He won't be able to get back in...

LUDDEN: When he gets his grass back.

MORRIS: Yeah, and so he's - in the meantime he's got to buy feed, and the few cattle that he has remaining - I mean he's got a significant, more than a hundred head of cattle remaining, but they're eating weeds. They're eating stuff that they don't normally eat.

In other places, in Arkansas, for instance, cattle start eating Johnson weed, and I've talked to producers there whose cattle have died. They die very quickly once they eat this drought-stricken Johnson weed. It kills them in a matter of days.

LUDDEN: Really? Oh dear.

MORRIS: Yeah, yeah.

LUDDEN: Gosh, so who else have you been speaking with out there?

MORRIS: Well, I took this road trip down the Arkansas River, or the Arkansas River, it's called in Kansas, and spoke with people in the tourism industry up towards the headwaters, where rafting and fishing are really important industries for that region. It doesn't really get - it pretty much survives on tourism, and the tourism season is only a few months long.

They really don't have skiing, exactly, there. And then I talked with ranchers and farmers on down the river.

LUDDEN: And what are the kind of other problems that you're hearing about because of this drought?

MORRIS: Well, I mean, if you're lucky, you had river water to irrigate with or a well pumping, essentially river water that - submerged river water - throughout the spring. A lot of people who irrigate in eastern Colorado off the Arkansas River have had their irrigation ditches run dry. Those people just haven't - you know, you may have had a shower now and then.

I talked to one farmer who said, you know, we can't - it seems like we have to have a tornado to get a rain around here. They've had very, very little rain, and what rain they have hasn't been that helpful. And so their crops are dying. Say in the case of corn, if you had a good start to your corn crop, it maybe grew, you know, to be four or five feet high before the drought just killed it, and in that case a lot of times farmers are able to chop up the corn and make it into silage, which is a cattle feed.

In that instance, though, it's not very good cattle feed because it doesn't have any grain on it. So a lot of farmers will - are chopping up their corn for silage, and that really only works if you have cattle to feed it to. It's a very bulky feed, and you know, again, at this stage kind of low quality. So it's not really worth shipping anywhere.

So that's a fallback for a lot of the corn farmers.

LUDDEN: You know, I think we have another farmer on the line. Let's get a call here. Glen(ph) is in - out in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Glen. Glen doesn't hear me. Hello, Glen? All right, we'll try to get to him again. So Frank, it's not, as I understand it, just agriculture though. Some tourism industries, rafting, what's happening with some other industries?

MORRIS: Well, you know, in the case of rafting, they still are running the Arkansas River, which is the - in some years, or a lot of years, I guess, the most heavily commercially raft river in the country, maybe in the world. The problem is that they're rafting it on low water, which sort of limits the routes you can take.

It makes for a slower ride, which makes the payroll of these rafting companies rise at a time when business is down. People are scared, or you know, canceled vacations out to Colorado because of the wildfires, also related to the drought, of course. And so that business is hurting, and the rafts are floating now partially on water that's being released from reservoirs, just transferred downstream.

So once they - and those reservoirs are running not dry, but they're running very low. Once they stop doing that, the rafting season will be over, probably, in Colorado. Even though it's been raining up in the highlands, it really depends on the snowpack, and the snowpack wasn't there.

So that's hurting the fishing industry. It had been very good trout fishing, apparently, but the fish are stressed because the water is warmer than normal because it's shallower and it's been hot.

You know, other things - you know, Clay Masters was on this morning, MORNING EDITION, had a nice piece talking about the way that just, you know, the lawn care business has been affected. I mean it does start to reach in, and you have municipalities right here in Kansas City, where we have a pretty healthy water supply called the Missouri River, and also the Kaw River coming out of Kansas - these suburban communities where people water their lawns to a brilliant emerald green are being told that they can only water every other day. And so there's a little grumbling about that.

LUDDEN: Yeah - and the guy said he has an irrigation company, which you'd think would be booming, but you know, people spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a water bill, and the grass is still kind of brown, you just sort of give it up.

MORRIS: Right, well, you know, and you know, it's, it's - again the impact spreads - even if you have, say, a pretty decent well out in central Kansas, those wells are - the water table is dropping like crazy. They exist - agriculture, irrigated agriculture exists out in western Kansas based on this Ogallala aquifer that filled up at the end of the last Ice Age, when a big glacier melted. And so it's not coming back. It's just going down, and it's going down really, really fast this year.

LUDDEN: Oh, that's scary. All right, let's try another caller here. Avi(ph) in Fairfield, Iowa. Hi there.

AVI: Howdy. I planted a mixed-fruit, chestnut and hazelnut orchard on about two acres of land, and I spent 30 hours last week in 106-degree heat index hauling water on the back of a truck. I only have a 200-gallon tank, so it's just back and forth, back and forth. And I have a pond which is maybe, you know, six, seven feet down, and that's a shared pond. So I have to, you know, negotiate with my neighbors how much I could use for my trees and so on.

LUDDEN: And what are you guys deciding? How are you working out how much you should take out of that pond?

AVI: Well, he - my neighbor was really kind, and he said, well, my calculations are we can use it for a year without rain, so don't worry about it. But I'm not entirely sure his calculations are correct. And so when, you know, it's a race against time, I guess - you know, the weather should turn around in the fall, right?

LUDDEN: Well, who knows this year. Avi, how do you get the water out of the pond? Do you have a suction, do you bail it?

AVI: I have a solar pump, it's a 12-volt pump off of a 24-volt system that pumps it about 100 yards up the hill. It takes me 24 hours to fill a 1,600-gallon tank. Then I use a sump pump off the same solar panels to fill my 200-gallon tank, which only takes about 20 minutes, and then I drive that, you know, a quarter mile down the road, which - you know, and I'm also using a lot of gasoline to do it this way...

LUDDEN: And a lot of manpower, it sounds like.

AVI: Yeah, and spent, like I said, 30-some hours, and that's just standing there with a garden hose. And the soil is so dry that it actually doesn't get absorbed. You have to get enough water in there so that the soil is not, you know, hydrophobic, and it just sort of stays on the surface and runs off.

LUDDEN: Wow. Oh, Avi, well, good luck to you, and thanks for the call.

AVI: Well, thank you.

LUDDEN: Frank Morris, where are you traveling next?

MORRIS: Well, I don't know. I've got a lot of work to do here in Kansas City. So I'll probably not be traveling. I also hasten to mention that I'm with an organization called Harvest Public Media. We're a little journalism group centered on agriculture here in the Midwest, but we're the hub of that. It's a public radio collaboration with Iowa Public Radio and NET in Nebraska, KBIA in Columbia, and others.

But, you know, I'd like to get out to Arkansas. Arkansas looks just terrible. I mean, the drought there has been - it's been extremely dry there for a long time, but also the drought, the latest drought monitor pictures, which just came out this morning, show that Kansas and Missouri, the drought is deepening quickly here.

It's really - the situation here is really deteriorating.

LUDDEN: You look at the map. I looked at it this morning as well, and it's just crazy. I mean it's so much of the country.

MORRIS: Yeah, yeah.

LUDDEN: All right, go ahead?

MORRIS: Well, no, go ahead...

LUDDEN: Frank Morris, you're going to stick with us, and we're also going to be joined by a climatologist who's been working with communities out there in the Midwest, helping them to adapt as they can to this drought. Tell us your drought story. How are you being affected? Call us at 800-989-8255. Or send us an email, the address is talk@npr.org. We'll have more in a moment. I'm Jennifer Ludden, this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden. We're talking about the drought that is affecting so much of the United States, and I have right here the 10-day weather forecast for Des Moines, Iowa and Dodge City, Kansas. It does not look good, very little chance of rain, very high temperatures there in Des Moines, and worse, triple digits in Dodge City for the entire rest of the week with zero chance of rain the next seven days.

If things are hot and dry where you are, we'd like to hear your drought story. Give us a call at 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Frank Morris is my guest, he's the news director at member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, and we're also joined now by Mark Svoboda. He's a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Monitoring Program at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. He joins us from NET Radio in Lincoln, Nebraska. Welcome to you.

MARK SVOBODA: Hi, Jennifer, thanks for having me on.

LUDDEN: So as someone in the industry, let me put it to you generally: How bad is it?

SVOBODA: Well, as you can see from the map, I'm one of the authors of that product. We've been doing that map since 1999 now, and over that time we have never seen this much percent of the U.S. or at least the lower 48 states covered in drought. Currently that number is about 64 percent.

And in any given year, you might expect somewhere around 15 percent. So it's pretty significant.

LUDDEN: You know, we have an email from Randy, who says - he keeps hearing this is the worst drought in 25 or 50 years, I think the number, both numbers have been bandied about there. He wonders what was happening then.

SVOBODA: Well, that was the drought of 1988. You've kind of heard that kicked around, the generational drought. That was the last one to primarily affect the corn and bean belt, sort of the midsection of the country, if you will, and it had dire economic - you know, the results of that were somewhere between 30 and 40 billion to the ag sector alone.

We're seeing the potential for that to rear its ugly head once again. The amount of intensity has really ramped up lately, coinciding with the first heat wave of late June, and unfortunately looking at those same forecasts you're looking at for the next two to four weeks, it looks like the heat could be worse than the last go-around. So we expect conditions, if anything, to intensify even more.

LUDDEN: And the - tell us how the map works. I mean, how do you figure all this out, and what's - you know, what's the word after severe? Exceptional?

SVOBODA: Yeah, we have extreme and then exceptional. Actually, when you see it ramp up in intensity, that is based on sort of a historical percentile ranking. So it's something where you're not going to cry wolf every time you see a drought. When you start seeing those reds and the dark browns on the map, that's severe. That's something that, like I said, the 60-percent number I threw around earlier, you've only seen that three times in total over the last 100-plus years, and the other two times besides this year were the 1930s and the 1950s.

But when you look at the severity of this drought, in the severe category, the only other time you've seen maybe more of the U.S. in drought - and currently right now we're currently just shy of 40 percent, but we've seen a little bit more than 40 percent in both the '50s and the '30s.

So the longer the drought goes, though, you'll see those impacts really start to ramp up, and it doesn't take long for intensity to follow.

LUDDEN: All right, let's get a caller on the line here. Matt is in Baldwin City, Kansas. Hi, Matt.

MATT: Hi. Actually, I live near Frank.

MORRIS: Hi, Matt.

MATT: And I discovered something very interesting, just - hi - just recently. I have a friend who grows a commercial flower garden on my property here, and we have to separate out our water usage. And I had a whopper of a bill the last time. So I went out and calibrated a bucket for five gallons and determined that about 11 - every 11 seconds a gallon of water was coming out of this garden hose, which must be similar to a lot of people's garden hoses.

And over the course of an hour, that generated 327.27 gallons of water, which - you know, when you consider lots of people are doing this, it's taking up a considerable amount of water. And we're not even watering our grass. We're watering things like a flower garden for a business or, in my case, heirloom watermelons. And...

LUDDEN: Well, Frank Morris, haven't you told us that some - the water system out there is really being tapped?

MORRIS: Well, you know, I think that it's not really being taxed yet. You know, again, the suburban areas have issued some recommendations. There's one community out here in suburban Kansas City that has actually said it will enforce a, you know, every-other-day watering regime. But I think it's - you know, the water system here is not being stressed here.

You know, you go out to Dodge, Dodge City, you mentioned, you know, the weather forecast looks terrible there. It's been terrible there. They had 20-plus days over 100 degrees in June too. And that's unusual. So you know, out there, you know, the river's dry, the wells are dropping. Here in Kansas City, about, you know, 350 miles away, it's not really that bad yet.

We have - it's much wetter out here than it is back west generally, and especially - and now especially.

LUDDEN: All right, so Matt, are you going to keep up the watering, you're not going to let those watermelons go?

MATT: Right, yeah, this - I love these moon and stars watermelons, it's an heirloom variety, and just by way of perspective, every cubic foot of water contains seven - about seven and a half gallons. So that's - I had never figured this out, and it really gave me some pause to consider.

LUDDEN: All right, well, thanks for the call.

MATT: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And let's get one more on the line here, Sherry(ph) in Parma, Michigan. Hi there.

SHERRY: Hi, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good. What's happening?

SHERRY: Thanks for taking my call. Well, as I was explaining to the gal that answered the phone, my husband and sons are new farmers. So they bought new equipment and, you know, the tractors and everything that goes along with that, and with the planting of corn and soybeans. And because of no rain and the timing of planning, our crop was lost, and...

LUDDEN: This is their first year?

SHERRY: Their first year.

LUDDEN: Oh, ouch.

SHERRY: First year. So they plowed everything under, and we're hoping in the fall that something else can be done. So I've been watching the discouragement with the men in my family, you know, with all the plans they had with this crop and the new equipment. And you know, everything is just, just lost.

LUDDEN: But they're going to try again next year?

SHERRY: They're going to try again next year.

LUDDEN: All right, well, we wish you luck.

SHERRY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you, Sherry. Mark Svoboda, do you work with communities there and help them try and do what they can? What are you telling them?

SVOBODA: Well, droughts are local, and that's where they really impact people, like the stories we're hearing here today. And we've got a couple initiatives underway. We work with anybody, from an individual producer, rancher, up to the municipality, county, state and even national, international level, through a variety of resources and guides available freely on our website.

And one of those is what we call drought-ready communities. We're working with the American Planning Association and NIDIS, the National Integrated Drought Information System, to develop even more resources for communities, especially those that are strapped for resources, to help them better prepare for drought, because right now is not the time to do it.

You're in crisis mode. You're trying to respond to the event and help your constituents. But we hope that this doesn't become a multi-year drought and next year we can learn, use this as a focusing event, as an opportunity, a window of opportunity to make some real changes through proactive drought...

LUDDEN: So can you give me some concrete examples, understanding each community is different. But for example, what could an agricultural community do to be better prepared?

SVOBODA: Well, of course putting the plants in the ground, you're right, there isn't anything you can do once that plant's in the ground. Obviously there has been some changes in hybrids and varieties that are more drought tolerant than what we saw 20, 25 years ago, certainly. But when you get no rain at all, that doesn't matter.

By its nature, it's a risk profession. Working with communities, do they have an alternative water supply? Are they on one well? Obviously urban water consumption makes up a pretty small percent of that pie though. So it depends on the economy of the region.

We've heard about tourism or recreation that's often forgotten. In a lot of states, that's right up there in the top two or three economic factors for the state. So it just depends on where you are. But we want to develop a flexible system that can step through and give them examples to follow.

LUDDEN: Frank Morris, go ahead.

MORRIS: Oh yeah, Jennifer, I wanted to just chime in. You know, I think the difference in plants, the improvements in plant genetics, that's really - that's not something to be understated here because they, you know, through genetic engineering and conventional breeding, hybrid plants are a lot more drought-tolerant, or they can be.

You know, if you buy these expensive seeds, you can buy plants that would not survive - there are plants out there now, a fellow showed me some, Loren Alderson(ph) in Nickerson, Kansas, he's got soybean plants that are not growing, they're not producing, but they're not dead. And he said that, you know, five years ago, if he'd planted good, high-quality soybean seed, his plants would be dead.

So now they're hanging on, and I think that that's part of the story of this drought. If you look at the - if you just look at the maps and at the amount of precipitation, it looks maybe a little worse than it really is because farming techniques have improved so dramatically since the '50s or '30s. And part of it has to do with these plant varieties that are just very, very hearty and also farmers who have gotten very good at putting the water on the roots of the plants, not, you know, down the creek. So things, you know, things have changed a lot, and farming is a lot more sophisticated business than it used to be. One last thing?


MORRIS: Farmers are coming into this in a pretty darn good position, or coming off some very big harvests with good prices, and a lot of farmers, you know, in central Kansas, for instance, got a wheat harvest that was OK. So it's not a bad time. You know, you never want to have something like this happen, but now is not a bad time because a lot of people in farming are coming off some very good years.

LUDDEN: All right. We'll take a little good news when we can get it. Let's get another caller here. Phil is in Hebron, Illinois. Hi there.

PHIL: Hi. Good afternoon. I'm on a 16-acre farm of the corn you fellows are speaking about. Northern Illinois on the Wisconsin state line. We had seven-tenths of an inch of rain in the last eight weeks.


PHIL: That's a period we should have probably had eight inches. We picked up two and a half inches last night relatively fast. We just went into our fields and checked water penetration. That two and a half inches penetrated one and three-eighths inch into the bone-dry soil.

LUDDEN: Oh, no. I'm so sorry, Phil.

PHIL: Well, we're also involved in a horticultural operation I want to tell you about. And we use what's called the Palmer(ph) wetting agent that we add to our soil. Adds a big expense to our costs, and our competitors always thought we're a little crazy. And right now it's cut our water use 70 percent compared to the people we compete with, so we're looking pretty good today.

LUDDEN: There we go. Phil, thank you so much for the phone call.

PHIL: Sure.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's squeeze in another here. Arthur in Corbin, Kentucky. Hi there.

ARTHUR: Good afternoon, madam and sirs. I'm kind of an old-school fellow. I'm 50 years old, learned how to farm from my grandpa. And I'm using some extremely old-fashioned techniques here, and hopefully this might help some farmers.

LUDDEN: All right.

ARTHUR: First thing I do is I germinate all my seeds, and I don't put my plants in the ground until they're about six inches tall. Also, what I do is we go through and we cut down all of our fields, and we break up all of our hay, and we blend it in. Once we put the plants in the ground, we put about three inches of this hay down all around over the entire ground, then we cover the whole ground with newspaper, and then we put another six inches of hay on top of that.

Thankfully, we also have two wells out here, which are rather deep, and these wells are over 100 years old, and they contain a massive amount of water, plus we have three ponds out here. So we're hauling thousands of gallons of water every week to keep our crops wet, but thankfully, because of the newspaper and the hay, what this does is it helps keep the roots cool, and it retains the water so that your crops can thrive and survive the drought. And this is what helped my grandfather and my mom and dad and now is helping me to keep our crops alive.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Arthur, thank you for passing that on. We appreciate it.

ARTHUR: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thanks for the call. Here's an email, different perspective here. John writes: I'm working to become a certified flight instructor in Newton, Kansas. None of our aircraft have air-conditioning. It gets as warm as you think it can get in a glass-top solar oven. It makes me not even want to go to the airport. Factor in the heat, as well as sitting inches away if not touching your instructor, it gets even warmer. And an email from Mark: Could your guest explain the technical definition of drought? Mark Svoboda?

SVOBODA: Well, that's an easy one and a hard one. The easy definition is that everyone has their own definition. As funny as that may sound, it's true. Everyone has a different perspective or vocation. The drought to an urban person that can turn on the tap and water their garden is much different than the producer waiting for rain to fall out of the sky to grow a crop versus an irrigator versus somebody that runs a rafting operation. So drought is different for each of these people.

One, it's what's in the stream. For another, it's what's in the ground, and for another, it's what falls out of the sky or out of their tap. So it's basically - it varies wildly.

LUDDEN: Huh. All right. Frank Morris, you are - you said that - we've heard about, a few months ago this was supposed to be the boomer crop. You talked about the good position farmers have been in. Do we have any sense right now what will come through these difficulties? What kind of crop might there be?

MORRIS: Well, that's hard to say because, you know, in a lot of places it deteriorates hour by hour. So you know, people are dependent on rain, you know, you have to wait for rain and until you get it, it's hard to say. The producers, the farmers that are really definitely going to suffer are the people who feed livestock - dairymen and cattle producers. Those people are already taking a very bad beating, and you're seeing, you know, dairy production drop off quite a bit as feed prices rise, so - and milk prices are probably - milk and cheese probably are going to rise too pretty soon. But you know, as far making a prediction about the crop, that's very tough. The people at USDA get paid a lot more money than I do to do that kind of thing. Hard telling right now though.

LUDDEN: We want to hold you to it. Mark Svoboda, you said you hope this doesn't turn out to be a multi-year drought. We don't have any sense of what - whether that might be the case at this point. And what - how long are the implications after a bad year like this?

SVOBODA: Well, there will be some hangover from this drought. There's no doubt. And we've seen that already with the carryover in, say, the southeastern part of the United States, which was really the story last year with Atlanta, Georgia, Florida, and Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico in particular, and Texas being the number one cattle-producing state. This year it shifted with a very low snowpack situation in the Rockies, which is - we're feeling some of those effects now.

This next winter is critical for two things. One, we need a much better snowpack to refill reservoirs because the demand has been so high this summer. If we had gotten a cooler summer, low-demand summer, that might have eked us out an extra year. Now we're much more reliant, I think, on a big snowpack here. And secondly, we need the pattern to shift for the rest of the Midwest and plains that can irrigate to get those soils saturated during our downtime, to recharge our batteries going into next growing season.

LUDDEN: All right. Mark Svoboda, the monitoring program area leader for the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He joined us from NET Radio there in Lincoln. And thank you so much.

SVOBODA: Thanks for having me, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: And Frank Morris, news director at member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, and managing supervisor at Harvest Public Radio. He joined from the studios at KCUR. Frank, thank you.

MORRIS: Thank you, Jennifer.

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