Is Drought Slowly Killing US Farms?

Farmers and ranchers continue to suffer from one of the country's worst droughts in 50 years. President Obama recently announced the government will buy up to $170 million of meat from farmers. But some say it's too little too late. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Virginia farmer John Boyd and Harvest Public Media reporter Peggy Lowe.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, parents and kids are starting to stock up on school supplies but will back to school shopping give retailers the bump they need? We'll talk finance in our Money Coach conversation. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, President Obama has announced new help for American farmers who are suffering from one of the worst droughts in 50 years. In Iowa yesterday he said the government will buy up to $170 million's worth of pork, chicken, and other meat for use in federal food programs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America depends on farmers and ranchers to put food on the table, depends on farmers and ranchers to feed our families. So we've got to be there for them. Not just today, but tomorrow and every day until this drought passes.

LYDEN: But farmers say that's still too little too late for them. Corn and soy crops have been decimated by the drought and many ranchers who produce dairy and meat don't have enough to feed their cattle. And Congress didn't pass this year's farm bill, including relief for distressed farmers, before breaking for recess.

We wanted to hear more about how farmers are dealing with the drought so we called on John Boyd. He's a farmer who grows corn and soybeans in Virginia and he's also president of the National Black Farmers Association. Thanks for being with us, John.

JOHN BOYD: Thank you for having me, Jacki.

LYDEN: And we're also speaking with Peggy Lowe. She's been covering the drought as a reporter for Harvest Public Media. That's a collaboration of Midwest Public Radio stations reporting on agriculture. Welcome to the show, Peggy Lowe.

PEGGY LOWE: Hey, Jacki. Greetings from Kansas City.

LYDEN: Kansas City, Missouri. OK. Well, John Boyd, let's begin with you. You grow soybeans and corn in several counties in Virginia, right?

BOYD: Yes.

LYDEN: Tell us what it looks like out there.

BOYD: Well, in two of the counties I think we pretty much have - write that away as a loss, you know, right now because it's been so dry. And a lot of people think just because you get a shower of rain that it's going to save everything but when you have 100 degree temperatures for weeks at a time and just get just a little rain, it's just not enough to save the crop.

And, you know, last year we had soybeans maybe up to my waist, probably three and a half feet. And this year they're not to the top of my boots that I have on here. So it's just a difference of night and day. And, you know, farmers are not going to make the yields. And when you don't make the yields you can't pay the bills.

And so it's a real troubling, you know, effect for - not just for farmers but for the consumers too. You know, the consumers are going to see the high cost of food that shows up in the supermarket. The high cost of beef and poultry because soybean and corn are used to feed these commodities. So it's going to be a real troubling effect for everybody.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. Peggy Lowe, you report from the Midwest, which has really experienced the worst of this drought. What have you been hearing?

LOWE: Right. This is the worst drought that the Midwest has experienced in 50 years. So many crop producers have completely written off their entire harvest, the crops are that bad, corn and soybeans. The people that are particularly hard hit, though, are the livestock producers, because with the people that raise crops they have crop insurance and so they are mostly protected.

Estimates are that about 85 percent of the crops are protected by insurance. Livestock producers, on the other hand, are not covered by that kind of insurance and any emergency drought aid expired for both crop and livestock producers last year.

This year the emergency drought aids is hanging in the farm bill which is stuck in Congress.

LYDEN: Peggy, I want to play a clip of a Missouri dairy farmer that you spoke with. Here's Stacy McAllister.

STACY MCALLISTER: This is 100 degree-plus heat since May and this is no measurable rain since April. It's a slow Katrina and it's killing us. And just because we're farmers we're singled out. And that's not right.

LYDEN: Why does Mr. McAllister, a dairy farmer, talk about being singled out?

LOWE: Because he watched, for instance, when a natural disaster hit, say, New Orleans in the form of Katrina and there was emergency aid right away. He's saying that this natural disaster that's happening to the Midwest is a slow Katrina. It's happening sort of every day as, you know, his cattle get hungry and he has feed for about 60 days.

And he is feeling every bit as desperate as someone, say, in New Orleans and no one is coming to his rescue. So he feels more than a little angry about that.

LYDEN: Hmm. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking about how the devastating drought affecting much of the country, along with very high temperatures, is hurting farmers. I'm speaking with Harvest Public Media reporter Peggy Lowe and John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and president of the National Black Farmers Association.

John, we've been talking about your situation, both here and just as you were coming in and you told our producer that this is leaving you with a cash shortfall even if your diversified operation of about $100,000.

BOYD: Yes.

LYDEN: How are you expecting to cover that loss? Do you qualify for insurance?

BOYD: Well, one of the things that the other person on the line with us was talking about was the federal crop insurance and a lot of black farmers and other small farmers alike, specialty crops and black farmers, simply don't have the federal crop insurance. It's so high. And a lot of times the payments are due before the actual commodity is sold.

So the farmer is caught between a rock and a hard place. Do they pay for the high cost of seed or do they pay for the federal crop insurance? And every time you're going to buy your seed, because if you don't plant it, there's no chance that you're going to reap any benefits or harvest.

So one of the things that's been troubling, and even though Congress has not passed a farm bill - and Congress should move on that - there's no reason why they can't put politics aside and look at what's going on, you know, with American farmers and pass a farm bill.

LYDEN: John, you just heard Stacy McAllister, a dairy farmer in Missouri, talk about a slow Katrina. Is that a description you'd agree with?

BOYD: He does make a valid point that Congress should act and make sure that those programs are in place. And people fail to realize that farmers feed the world, not just the people here in the United States. A lot of people around the world are depending on these crops and commodities to make. And this year, you know, the corn is so bad that some of the corn didn't even develop.

LYDEN: Peggy, John is talking about not qualifying for crop insurance because of the size of his 300 acre operation. Crop insurance dates back to the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s and under it the government pays 60 percent of the premium and private insurance is supposed to cover the rest. What if a farmer doesn't have it? What farmers have this protection and which don't?

LOWE: Well, John's absolutely right. If you can't afford your crop insurance you're not going to pay for it. You know, you are going to buy seeds first. And John's also right in that the small and the specialty farmers are particularly hard hit by this. The specialty crop producers aren't getting any emergency drought aid either.

So we've talked to many of the smaller farmers who, for instance, sell directly at farmer's markets and they're being very hard hit by this and they might have to get out of the business as well because they're not seeing any relief, A, from the heat, and, B, from Congress.

LYDEN: But what about subsidies that are supposed to protect farmers? And there have been generous subsidies. It's no secret that farming and the agriculture industry has often been the beneficiary of very generous subsidies. Are farmers afraid that that might change or there still isn't enough?

LOWE: Well, subsidies are going to change. Period. I mean, that's already been discussed and even approved by commodity groups. The 2012 farm bill that is pending in Congress right now will essentially replace those subsidies with a form of crop insurance. So that kind of discussion is already underway. We'll see what happens when Congress gets back from the August recess, but in the meantime, farmers and ranchers are really suffering.

LYDEN: John Boyd, you are a third generation African-American farmer and you said that your father told you this is the worst drought he'd ever seen.

BOYD: Yes.

LYDEN: What's the hardest part? Many farmers are multigenerational. People do tend to inherit farms.

BOYD: I think the hardest part is looking at the crop and not being able to do absolutely anything about it. And a lot of people, I know in other interviews say, well, why don't you irrigate. You can only irrigate from a well for so long. You can only irrigate from a pond or a creek for so long before the water is down so low where you can't pump it anymore.

Eventually you've got to have some of god's rain and no matter how great we think we are, we can make all these discoveries and all these powerful tools, but we just can't make it rain. So I think the hardest part is actually looking at that crop, doing everything right, planting on time, fertilizing on time, and the crop's still not making. So I think that is the most frustrating part of the actual drought.

And I agree, again, that Congress just needs to act. It's just like the president said. When times are tough, you know, we come together and make things happen, so I hope that when Congress comes back into session, that they make the farm bill their top priority and put some of these other politics and bickering aside. And you know, this is - this is the American way. I mean, farming is just as old and biblical as the seed itself, so Congress needs to act to make sure that the farmers stay on the farm, and that's the most important thing, that we don't lose farmers in this actual drought.

LYDEN: What about that, Peggy Lowe? Losing farmers - you report on agriculture. Do you think there will be lasting effects from this drought? A shift in the way that food is produced?

LOWE: Absolutely. You're already seeing a trend nationally, and we've seen this for at least the last decade or so, that many small producers are going out of business and that family farmer that you said - that you mentioned, Jackie - there are fewer and fewer of those family farmers and there's more and more of corporate farms and corporate animal production. And so many small farmers are saying, hey, I'm already kind of one of the last of the breed here and this drought is hitting me and so this large scale agriculture is going to get a boost from this and it already has been the trend over the last 10 years.

LYDEN: How are you going to get through it, John?

BOYD: One day at a time. One day at a time.

LYDEN: Do you have cash reserves to cover your loss?

BOYD: Well, I think we'll be able to sell some cattle and be able to actually, you know, plant our crop next year, and that's the most important thing. I mean, a farmer can say anything he wants, but farming has to be something that you love - and most farmers do, or else they wouldn't do it - and we're always looking to next year, how we're going to plant this crop next year, how we're going to get operating, how we're going to get seed and all of these things. So it's one day at a time, but this drought has really put a devastating effect on all the farmers across this country.

LYDEN: John Boyd is president of the National Black Farmers Association and he farms himself in Virginia. He was here with us in our Washington studio. Peggy Lowe is a reporter for Harvest Public Media. That's a collaboration of public radio, reporting on agriculture. She was kind enough to join us from member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri.

Thank you both very much. And really, John, good luck.

BOYD: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

LOWE: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: Thank you.

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