Missouri, Kansas farmers coping with worst drought in 50 years
July 21, 2012
By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
This summer brought a drought disaster that now ranks as the largest in more than 50 years and among the 10 largest of the past century. The heat increase and the lack of rains provoke that decrease the agriculture and livestock production. Data from the Palmer Drought Severity Index show that at the end of June 2012, 54.6 percent of the contiguous 48 states were in drought, the highest percentage since December 1956
After of 32 days at 100 degrees F. last summer, this summer brought a drought disaster that now ranks as the largest in more than 50 years and among the 10 largest of the past century, according to a report released by the National Climatic Data Center last week.
The report also shows that since 1895, only the extraordinary droughts of the 1930s and 1950s have covered more land area than the current drought. Data from the Palmer Drought Severity Index show that at the end of June, 54.6 percent of the contiguous 48 states was in drought — the highest percentage since December 1956. The summer of 1954 is ranked third worst, historical records put temperatures at 100 degrees F.39 times that summer.
No relief in sight
One of Steve Murphy’s earliest memories is the summer of 1954. Ask anyone in this area about that year and they’ll tell you: It was hot.
It’s taking a toll on those in Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas who make their living in cooperation with Mother Nature, and there is no end in sight, meteorologists say. The corn crop has been reduced by at least 50 to 80 percent, Murphy said Wednesday from his tractor. “The hay is pretty well dried up and gone.”
I’m feeding supplemental feed with hay and some grain to the cattle to keep them going like they should be. Dipping into your winter feed supply, it’s going to make it real difficult later on. That’s the thing about drought — you really feel the affects of it on down the road.”
Murphy, 59, has been at farming full time for about 35 years. Outside of this year, he recalled 1980 as the worst in his farming career. We were getting three bushels of soybeans to the acre, where the county average would be about 25 to 30 bushel,” he said. “You remember those real bad ones. That year, July temperatures hit 100 and kept on climbing, day after day.
This year is different, though, because it started so much earlier. It started in June being so dry. Last year was dry, but we’re dryer now because it started so much earlier,” he said. “The crops have used all the subsoil moisture.”
Murphy, who doesn’t irrigate, typically relies on some 42 to 44 inches of rain a year. Seven months into the year, rural Crawford County has had just 16 inches; Pittsburg, to the east, has had 25.
Got to keep after it
Across the state line, ask Ed Cook, a farmer in rural Liberal, Mo., what the worst year for drought was during his farming career and he’ll also say 1980. That was the year that sticks in my memory. It was hotter in 1980 and drier than it was last year, Cook said.” One of the news stations got to tracking how many days over 100 degrees F. it was, and it was 35 or 36 days.”
Cook, 62, grew up on a nearby farm, and retired last December as the executive director for Barton County’s USDA Farm Service Agency. A few years ago, he gave up cash grain crops on his 150-acre farm in favor of something more profitable. Now, he works full time to grow 35 acres of Bermuda hay to sell as horse feed, runs some livestock, and on 1.5 acres grows about 30 kinds of produce for the Pittsburg Farmers Market.
The hay is coming in under weight, and the produce is suffering.“ There are two issues: Heat and lack of rain. You put the two of them together and you have real issues,” Cook said. Heat means tomatoes won’t set; the blossoms drop off when it gets above 95 F. and stays there. The sweet corn won’t pollinate if it’s too hot.
Cook worked last week at trying to get an irrigation pump to run to irrigate his sweet corn. Liberal has had just 19 inches of rain seven months into the year; the average annual rainfall for Barton County is 46.5 inches. “Days like today, when it’s hot and the wind is blowing, there’s evaporation and you just really got to keep after it.”
“In a good year, I’ve produced as much as 8 tons to the acre — that’s two tons every time we cut it, four times, in June, July, August and September. This year, we only have gotten one cutting so far, and it probably made a ton and a half. We don’t know if we will get to bale it again.”
For now, Murphy and Cook both said they will continue to work and have faith. “If you didn’t have a faith, you sure wouldn’t be out here trying to do what we do. It’s just part of the process, we go through these cycles. We’re in a real dry cycle,” Murphy said. “It’ll change, I don’t know when. You just try to do what you need to do to keep things going.”