Peak Oil News: Blistering Drought Ravages Farmland on Plains

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Blistering Drought Ravages Farmland on Plains

(What does this have to do with peak oil? Abundant crops, esp. corn, are supposed to be the new source of ethanol fuel. If we don’t have enough to eat we won’t have enough to burn. MK)

With parts of South Dakota at its epicenter, a severe drought has slowly sizzled a large swath of the Plains States, leaving farmers and ranchers with conditions that they compare to those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930's.

The drought has led to rare and desperate measures. Shrunken sunflower plants, normally valuable for seeds and oil, are being used as a makeshift feed for livestock. Despite soaring fuel costs, some cattle owners are hauling herds hundreds of miles to healthier feedlots. And many ranchers are pouring water into "dugouts" — natural watering holes — because so many of them (up to 90 percent in South Dakota, by one reliable estimate) have gone dry.

Gov. Michael Rounds of South Dakota, who has requested that 51 of the state's 66 counties be designated a federal agricultural disaster area, recently sought unusual help from his constituents: he issued a proclamation declaring a week to pray for rain.

"It's a grim situation," said Herman Schumacher, the owner of a livestock market in Herreid, S.D., a small town near the North Dakota line where 37,000 head of cattle were sold from May through July, compared with 7,000 in the corresponding three months last year. "There's absolutely no grass in the pastures, and the water holes are all dried up. So a lot of people have no choice but to sell off their herds and get out of the business."

Drought experts say parts of the states most severely affected — Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming — have been left in far worse shape because of recent history: several years of dry conditions, a winter with little snow and then, with moisture reserves in the soil long gone, a wave of record heat this summer.

By late August, rain had fallen several times in some areas, but Bob Hall, an extension crops specialist at South Dakota State University, said it amounted to "a drip in a bucket."

"The bottom line is that even if we got relief starting today, at this minute," Dr. Hall said, "it would take a few years economically to recover."

As if earless, shriveled cornstalks were not enough, farmers and ranchers say they carry a sense that their counterparts elsewhere seem to be doing just fine, leaving them with what feels like an invisible disaster, unnoticed by the outside world. Some farmers in Midwestern states like Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, as well as some in the eastern sections of South Dakota and Nebraska, tell of a respectable growing season.

Even here in Mitchell, about 70 miles west of Sioux Falls, some residents did not grasp the scope of the drought until the Corn Palace, this city's tourist-luring castlelike civic center wrapped in hundreds of thousands of ears of corn, announced that because there was not enough of the crop, it would not redecorate this year for the 2007 season.

"We don't have any record of anything like this happening before," said Mark Schilling, the director of the Corn Palace, a campy, 114-year-old landmark promoted on highway billboards with endless corn puns.

"But if there's not a crop, there's not a crop," Mr. Schilling said quietly.

After weeks and weeks with little rain and high temperatures, one farmer, Terry Goehring, watched the mercury spike to 118 degrees in his Mound City, S.D., field one day in July. That was it. Mr. Goehring, who has farmed since 1978, sold half his 250 head of Angus cattle.

"There was no corn," he said. "There was no hay. We had nothing. And in that moment, I knew there was no choice."

Climatologists with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said scientists deemed the weather conditions and its effects in the areas of the worst drought a once-in-50-years experience.

In some cases, it has been worse than that. On July 15, a weather station in Perkins County, S.D., near North Dakota, recorded a temperature of 120 degrees. That matched the highest ever reported in the state since the start of such record-keeping in July 1936, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the Nebraska center.

Given such conditions, it is hardly a surprise that crop estimates are so gloomy. Steve Noyes, deputy director at the South Dakota field office of the government's National Agricultural Statistics Service, said the winter wheat crop here had shrunk by 43 percent from last year's; alfalfa hay is expected to be down by 35 percent; and 22 percent of pasture land is deemed "very short," with 35 percent "short," figures significantly worse than those of a year ago.


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