Drought is hell

Some parts of the district are so dry that despondent farmers can hardly grow grapes of wrath

Frank Jossi | Contributing Writer

Published November 1, 2002  | November 2002 issue

Located just outside the tiny village of Judith Gap in central Montana sits the Glennie family ranch, where three generations have grown livestock on a 20,000-acre spread once known for its fertile fields. Tom Glennie cannot recall a time when the land looked drier and the farm economy as dispiriting as today. Bountiful pastures have turned scraggy and brown, and the family has been unable to grow hay for livestock this year for the first time in decades.

"I know a lot of old timers—we have a neighbor who's 92—and they all consider this the toughest drought we've ever had, even worse than 1960-61," said Glennie, whose ranch lies a few hours north of Billings. "This has been five years now back-to-back. There's a lot of problems with wells and springs going dry that have never gone dry before and with parasites in the water."

His son, Neil, said the family has paid for hay they have gotten from Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) areas that the federal government opened in May to assist ranchers in finding feed for their cattle. The cost of getting feed, combined with a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in cattle prices, has made it "hard to make any money," he said. With so many ranchers in the same position for the last four or five years, the trickle-down effect has hurt retailers in the two towns nearest the ranch and left schools there with declining enrollments, the younger Glennie added.

The drought that began in some parts of Montana a half decade ago has since spread to South Dakota and a small southwest section of North Dakota over the past two years, drying up ranches and farms, rivers and wells, ditches and reservoirs. Cattle prices have plummeted as ranchers moved to sell herds. Many farmers are harvesting more insurance claims than crops this year, thanks to fields that have wilted from lack of moisture. The drought has left boat docks a quarter mile from water in the Missouri River's three major reservoirs and virtually eliminated barge traffic for six weeks this summer.

It has been fairly relentless, although some areas have received occasional rain that left a false sense of hope. In Montana, rains in June brightened the agricultural community's outlook for wheat and hay. But intense heat in July, when temperatures boiled to 115 degrees in some parts of the state, led to poor harvests on many farms, said Peggy Stringer, the state statistician. Winter wheat harvests have gradually declined in Montana, she said, with this year's total of 800,000 acres in cultivation being the lowest total since 1937, the height of the Dust Bowl.

While farmers and ranchers have yet to pack up their bags and head en masse in a Grapes-of-Wrath convoy for California or rainy Minnesota and western Wisconsin, they all describe their circumstances as devastating. At least they are not alone. As of late July, areas in 32 states were classified as being in a moderate drought and land in 26 states was in severe drought, according to a paper prepared by climatologist Mark Svoboda for a meeting of the Western Governors' Association drought preparedness group.

A late-summer National Weather Service map showed varying levels of drought in the west cascading from Montana into southern Idaho, all of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The worst section runs from central Montana south through Wyoming, Colorado and their neighbors. Portions of west Texas, Nebraska and Kansas have also been hurt by dry times. On the Eastern Seaboard the drought has spread its tentacles from Maine through the coastal areas of New England to the Mid-Atlantic, growing wider as it descends into Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Parts of Ohio, southern Indiana and Kentucky, too, suffer in a smaller belt of drought.

The dramatic fires in the West can be attributed in part to the drought, as can the nation's lowest winter wheat crop since 1917, said Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In the drought areas of Montana and South Dakota, and to a much lesser degree, North Dakota, groundwater has been depleted, wells have dried and forced communities to impose water restrictions. The federal government opened up CRP grazing land to assist farmers and ranchers earlier this year with mixed results. CRP land still costs farmers money to use and the land quality is uneven.

The drought arose as most all droughts in the district do: little rain in warm months and poor snowfall in winter, which fail to replenish lakes, rivers and aquifers, and leave the ground parched. The Dakotas, for example, get fewer than 20 inches of rain per year, but in some areas the drought cut that in half.

Nor if it started raining intensely tomorrow would the prospects of ranchers and farmers change much. Jess Aber, a water specialist with Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the longer the drought, the longer the recovery. A four- or five-year drought, he believes, will require an equal number of years to bring the soil and crops back to average, to refill lakes, rivers and groundwater.

The economic "shock"

The drought's impact is primarily on agriculture, a major industry in each of the three states most affected in the Ninth District. Although quantifying the effect of the drought has been difficult, South Dakota arrived at a total direct loss of $829 million in agricultural income for the state as of August 2002, out of a state economy that reached over $23 billion in 2000, the last year for which data is available.

By the end of the year, drought will probably have a direct impact on about 4 percent of South Dakota's gross state product, "which is a very scary number. It shocked us," said Matthew Diersen, an extension economist with South Dakota State University. "This not only affects ranchers and farmers but the rural services sector throughout the western part of South Dakota."

Diersen's report, prepared with two other SDSU economists at the request of the governor, shows crop conditions have led to a loss of $488 million as spring wheat crop fell 17 bushels per acre below the record high of 39 bushels a year ago, and corn fell to the lowest yield since 1995. Hay production dropped by 700,000 pounds compared with a normal season. Meanwhile, livestock producers lost $278 million due to poor pasture and an early sell-off of beef cows at reduced weights for slaughter. If the drought continues, Diersen wondered how long producers and farmers could stay in business especially since many have weathered a tenuous existence over the past two years.

Weekly value for Period Ending Sept. 28, 2002

Chart: Drought Severity Index, 9th District
Chart Legend

-4.0 or less (Extreme Drought)
-3.0 to -3.9 (Severe Drought)
-2.0 to -2.9 (Moderate Drought)

*Long-Term Palmer Drought Severity Index
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Meanwhile, the other Dakota is hurting but not as badly. North Dakota has a peculiar circumstance whereby drought is killing crops in the southwest part of the state, while farmers face flooding problems in the northeast section. The state is seeing greater losses from drought, so it has concentrated energies there. Roger Johnson, the state's agricultural commissioner, told Congress in July that a study conducted by North Dakota State University showed the state's economy suffered a $223 million direct loss.

A month later, Johnson told a congressional committee, "Pasture land has burned up, dugouts and other water sources are drying up or are stagnant, crops that did grow are only a few inches in height, and other fields contain seeds that weren't even able to germinate. Some producers in these areas have been forced to sell off livestock. Others are struggling to find feed for their cattle, traveling hundreds of miles just to find adequate forage."

Montana has not undertaken the same research on the impact of the economic drought as the Dakotas, despite the fact that its drought is more severe and longstanding. "We do not have a good handle on the drought because it's so hard to break it out from other factors," said Aber, the state water specialist. "We're just getting piecemeal information on the impact now."

Perhaps the closest estimate of losses comes by way of a congressional bill introduced earlier this year by Montana's U.S. Sen. Max Baucus that would have provided $2.4 billion in direct payments to ranchers and farmers for losses incurred in 2001 in his home state. Of that sum, $1.9 billion would have gone into the Crop Disaster Program and $488 million into the Livestock Assistance Program, with the remaining $12 million funneled into a livestock field program for American Indians. Although passed by a wide margin in the Senate, that measure was killed in a conference committee.

In mid-September, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced a $752 million aid package to livestock producers in the West and elsewhere, while a $6 billion drought aid bill that passed the Senate was still being debated.

Steve Pilcher, executive director of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said the state's three- to five-year drought pattern in the central and northern regions has depressed calf prices by more than $150 a head and increased the numbers being sold. The cattle and calf inventory for Montana slid 11 percent as of July this year compared with July 2000, said Stringer, and more than half of the state's pasture and rangeland this summer was deemed to be in poor or very poor condition. A mere 2 percent of land was rated excellent.

The state's crop growers could not win for losing. Richard Owen, executive vice president of the Montana Grain Growers Association in Great Falls, said parts of the state received good rain in early June, leading to great optimism that vanished by the end of July due to hot weather. "Now it's not looking so good in some parts of the state," the said. "Those temperatures really affected the crops."

On the other hand, Montana's overall wheat production will be 19 percent higher than last year due to a greater amount of acreage planted, said Stringer, the state statistician. Barley, oats and sugar beets, all a small part of Montana's crop economy, also saw good increases in production, she said, although at least part of that was a result of more acres planted.

A little here, a little there

Other sectors of the economy are often hurt by drought, among them tourism, recreation and hydroelectricity. But so far, the drought has not stopped tourists from visiting Montana's national parks and recreational areas, said Vivian Manuel, state Department of Commerce public information officer. Nor do the economists who have studied the drought in the Dakotas see anyone putting off vacations for lack of water. SDSU's Diersen pointed out that tourists have not shunned the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, the state's premier tourist destinations, due to concerns about the drought.

Paul Johnston, chief of public affairs for the Northwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said three of the largest six reservoirs on the Missouri River—Fort Peck, Mont., Lake Sakakawea, N.D., and Lake Oahe, S.D.—have water levels 12 to 19 feet below normal after three years of drought. Spread out over huge water bodies, the result can be a shoreline that has migrated a quarter of a mile.

Some marinas and outfitters have gone out of business on the shallower, north sides of the reservoirs. But that hasn't decreased boat traffic or fishing all that much since water enthusiasts have simply taken their business to the southern, deeper ends of the lakes. On the Missouri, barge traffic stalled to a crawl, said Johnston, with just one or two companies using lighter towboats connected to slimmed-down barges to avoid running aground. For a few days in summer one tow sat stranded on a sandbar, a reminder of why barges stayed docked for several weeks. Producers of grain, fertilizer, cement, asphalt and other products who transport by barge had to switch to rail or truck for July and much of August, he said.

The Corps released water from the reservoirs in late August to help raise river levels throughout the drought areas of lower Midwest. The other result of the low water levels, he said, is 30 percent drop in the hydroelectric capacity of plants on the Missouri. "There's a potential for a rare adjustment up," he said. "It's going to depend on what Western Area Power Administration does and how much they have to go off the grid to get power, and on the [prices of the ] spot market."

The human toll

Ranchers and farmers across the region, many who work on land their families have owned for generations, see declining incomes and difficult times ahead unless the rains and mountain snowpacks return. Without a federal insurance program like that protecting farmers, ranchers are particularly exposed to the vagaries of weather and markets. David Fischbach, a rancher in Faith, S.D., the hardest hit drought area of his state, failed to grow any hay last year and has so little this year that he sold his entire herd of 225 calves.

"We're just not going to buy all the hay we need," he said. The idea of paying $120 a ton for hay—twice the usual cost—and then facing the prospect of having to sell the herd at a loss next year unless market prices rebounded was too much for Fischbach to bear. He sold the calves for 80 to 90 cents a pound, or about one-half to two-thirds what he once received. And he sold the calves at weights 150 to 170 pounds less than usual.

The economic virus that drought carries has enveloped this northwestern region of South Dakota. Equipment and fuel dealers have seen sales suffer and repair shops have time on their hands. Water in the Faith-Philip region, never of great quality, is now shipped to some farmers or is taken from ever-deeper wells. For Fischbach, the challenge now is to tend pastureland and find capital to buy a new herd of calves. A newspaper article in August reported three livestock auction businesses in his area of the state sold 39,000 head of cattle in July, four times the amount for the same month last year.

Crop farmers aren't faring much better. Gene Stehly, who runs an 11,000-acre family farm near Mitchell in southeastern South Dakota, said his corn yields have dropped 75 percent and his soybean crop went dormant after the record heat in July, killing half of it. The hybrid seeds that had led to so many "tremendous crop yields" in the 1990s have proven incapable of withstanding the stress of drought and an oven-hot summer.

"This was the hottest summer that I can remember in my entire career," he said. "This [drought] will be devastating to the incomes of farmers and ranchers in South Dakota. It's been severe. It's a serious natural event."

Even other parts of the state not in the southwest drought belt have suffered. Sioux Falls imposed water restrictions this summer as water in the Big Sioux River slowed to a trickle. Other cities throughout the state have had similar restrictions on watering lawns. In the western hinterland, the drought continues to dry both shallow and deep wells alike.

Montana's agricultural workforce faces the same predicament. Wheat farmer Lochiel Edwards, who owns a 3,000-acre tract in Big Sandy, a town in the north-central part of Montana, said this year's yields will be a mere 20 percent of normal. It's been a rough year because his expenses have not dropped as he continues to fertilize and till the soil. He's seen grain elevators close, and his neighbors "at the end of their credit" with local banks and on the ropes financially.

Big Sandy sits in a region called "The Golden Triangle," spanning Montana from Conrad to Shelby in the north and down to Great Falls. In that upside-down triangle sits the state's greatest wheat growing region. Some parts of it now could pass for desert. Edwards said he's not "knocking on bankruptcy's door," but he's lonelier and nervous about the future.

"There's been some sheriff's sales and it's pretty obvious those people went bankrupt, but most people don't talk about it," he said. "There's been attrition, in part because not everyone's a good operator. But even good operations are now on the verge of selling out. I hate to say that because now I have fewer neighbors. We just want it to turn around and rain normally so we can rebuild our yields."

Whether a hard rain is going to fall anytime soon is anyone's guess. In Montana and the Dakotas, where many farm and ranch families hang by a slender financial string, more dry months and years may lead to the 21st century's Dust Bowl exodus.