Drought of the Century
By George Thomas
June 29, 2000
-- LINCOLN, Neb. -- From the Midwest to the Deep South, farming communities across 21 states are experiencing pockets of extraordinary drought. By some measures, this is the worst drought in a century.
Gary Korth has been farming for 10 years on 400 acres in Lindsay, Neb., a small farming community in northeast Nebraska. He stated that this past fall and winter were the driest he could remember.
Korth fears that unless he sees a lot of rain over the next several weeks, he, along with the rest of Nebraska's farmers, could be headed into one of the worst droughts in over a 100 years.
From the Midwest to the Deep South, farming communities across 21 states are experiencing pockets of extraordinary drought. By some measures, this is the worst drought in a century.
According to Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska, the first five months of 2000 were the warmest in more than a century of record keeping. He also stated that this is something that would be expected every 20, 50, or 100 years, so now we are seeing the extreme and exceptional type of drought presently.
The government's drought forecast calls for another three months of hotter, drier weather and a shortage of rain in many states. Svoboda says drought poses dangers more dramatic than other natural disasters and costs American agriculture $6 to $8 billion each year.
According to Svoboda, drought does not bring the same kind of structural damage that hurricanes, tornadoes and floods bring, but year in and year out, drought is the leading cause of economic loss.
Since July 1999, much of the nation's heartland and Southern states have been dry and are getting drier. Currently, Southeastern Nebraska, which is considered one of the driest regions in the whole country, looks lush and healthy, but experts say that can be deceiving.
Svoboda calls this deception the "green drought". At first appearance, all looks well, but upon closer inspection, even the topsoil will soon be noticeably exhausted by crop demand and higher temperatures.
Nebraska State Climatologist Allen Dutcher stated, "When a crop is young, it does not use a whole lot of moisture. But as it grows, it starts using more and more water and within the next two to three weeks, we [residents of Nebraska] are going to need a quarter of an inch to four-tenths of an inch of water a day. It is what is in the soil that gets us through the dry periods."
Forecasters say it would have to rain an inch every three or four days to make up for this long dry stretch.
For farmers like Korth, hope for a decent harvest dwindles with every rainless day.
As the new economy of high technology fuels unprecedented national prosperity, the oldest economy, the family farm, is again facing hard times. Across the nation, small farming communities like Lindsay are withering away.
Jean Weise has lived in Lindsay for 60 years. She says that they used to have all kinds of stores in town, but now they only have a grocery store, a butcher shop and a gas station.
Dennis and Joan Pfeiffer own Denny's Market, the only grocery store in town. The Pfeiffer’s acknowledged that it's not just farmers that are feeling the effects of the drought. Their business is down by 50 percent from last year.
To help farmers cope with the emotional and physical stress of farming during a drought, the state of Nebraska created a farm hotline. Started in 1984, the Nebraska Farm Hotline provides farmers with free financial advice and counseling services.
Michelle Soll, coordinator of the hotline, said the tough financial times have taken a toll on farm families, especially on the wives.
To survive, most small farms now depend on a wage earner who works off the farm. Gary Korth drives a truck part time, while his wife, Janette, has a second job teaching at a Catholic school.
Janette stated, "I like where I am, I like being close to family, and I like where I am living, so yes, it scares me. I want to make a living, but I don't have to have the best of everything to be happy."
In 1900, 50 percent of American's lived and worked on a farm. A century later, it's less than one percent.
"Life is a struggle and it is not rosy every day, but I guess it comes down to faith," says Gary. "You say hang in there, God will make it better. You have got to believe that."
Weather experts say the next couple of weeks are going to be critical. Summer storms could give thirsty farms their much needed subsoil moisture, but all indications are that the drought conditions will only get worse before they get better.