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Drought Continues: Farmers, Shippers Feel Pressure


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're in the worst drought since the 1950s, according to NOAA, and while we associated extended dry spells with summer, conditions out west have remained unchanged since the warm weather ended.

There's been little to no rain or snow in much of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas. In mid-December, winter wheat seems as threatened as corn and soybeans were back in June. Water levels in the Mississippi River are 20 feet below average in some areas. Warm weather continues. There's little sign of relief in sight.

How's the drought changed your life? Call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, two professors experiment on open book, closed book and cheat sheet exams.

But first the drought, and we begin with Keith Kissling, who manages Kissling Farms in northwest Oklahoma. He's farmed wheat there since 1975 and joins us by phone from Burlington, Oklahoma. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today. Mr. Kissling?

KEITH KISSLING: Yes, hello Neal.

CONAN: Hi, welcome. Tell us what's happened with your wheat this year.

KISSLING: Well, it's not growing very well.

CONAN: When did you plant?

KISSLING: We always start planting about the 15th of September and try to get done by the - in the first week of October. This year we did get a little shower the first of September and so we were able to plant a little bit, for a couple of days before it dried back out. And that's come up, and now it's dying out because it's lost moisture. We don't have any subsoil moisture to replenish that.

CONAN: And that's what would have been installed in the soil back in the summertime, back in the fall.

KISSLING: Right, we haven't had any - we harvest wheat in June, and we haven't had any rain all summer. We live on a creek, and the creek's been dry all summer. It hasn't run any. And that's really unusual for this area because I actually try to irrigate out of the creek part of the time. It's just been a really dry summer.

I live 15 miles from the mesonet station and it says it's the driest we've been since 1921.

CONAN: That's not good news. It suggests you're going to have not much to harvest come June.

KISSLING: It looks like a lot of it's not up, never did germinate. So we had to plant it for crop insurance the 15th of November, but we just dusted it in, hoping for rain, and we haven't had that. So we've got an awful lot of wheat in this area that never has come up.

CONAN: There's also the heat, the temperature affects it, too, doesn't it?

KISSLING: Right, and it's been warmer than normal. Most of the time it's warmer than normal, and then a couple of days it got down to 10 or 11 degrees, which the wheat that actually is still alive, I'm afraid it's going to take care of that, too, if we have very many days like that.

CONAN: And so how has your life changed?

KISSLING: Well, we're going to have to depend on federal crop insurance, it looks like, to get us through this year because it's - they already know we're in a disaster for yield in Oklahoma. We didn't have a - we've been in a couple years of drought situation, and when that happens, you lose the subsoil moisture, which replenishes in the wintertime or in the fall. And we haven't had that. So we're looking at another year, probably. Unless we just have soaking rains in the spring of the year, we're going to be looking at another year of drought. It takes a while to get through that drought (unintelligible) time.

CONAN: And when you talk to other farmers in the area, what's the conversation about, just watching The Weather Channel?

KISSLING: Well, we're all hoping for something. We're used to having wheat pasture cattle this time of the year. When the wheat comes up, and it (unintelligible) out in November, December, up to the first of March, we run cattle on wheat. And this whole country is just a green mat of wheat. And you don't see any of that this year.

So we're out of a winter job. We're all just working on machinery and trying to do catch-up things, and we're going to miss this income this year of our wheat pasture cattle.

CONAN: How many more years can you stand?

KISSLING: Well, it depends on how many more years we have federal crop insurance. That's what's saving us. Our safety net's saving us right now. But as that goes along, our yields decline, you know, with zero production. And so pretty soon you've used that up. But I - you know, I don't know. I would say another couple of years, and there's going to be a lot of people go under that's got a lot of money borrowed.

CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck. Any sign of wet weather in the forecast?

KISSLING: Well, we do have a little ray of hope. Maybe Friday, tomorrow, they're talking a half-inch. And I don't know if that would even wet the backside of the trees, but it sure probably would green any wheat up that's still alive. I think it would probably help that some. So we're sure hoping on something, some kind of moisture, some way, either snow or ice or rain. We don't care. We just want moisture.

CONAN: Keith Kissling, thanks a lot.

KISSLING: Thank you.

CONAN: Keith Kissling, manager of Kissling Farms in central Oklahoma, where he's been growing wheat since 1975. Let's get a caller in. This is Gail(ph), and Gail's with us from North Park in Colorado.

GAIL: Hi. I have a small llama ranch here. I have about a head of - oh, a herd of about 50 llamas. And I have enough pasture to graze them during the summer, but I have to buy hay for the winter. And last year I bought hay for $85 a ton, which totaled about $2,500 for the year to get the herd through the winter.

This year, and it was very difficult to even find hay, when I did, I had to pay $300 a ton, which totaled over $10,000 for this year.

CONAN: That's a big difference.

GAIL: Huge difference. I had to take out a loan in order to buy the hay.

CONAN: And I'm sure you started to look at your profit margins.

GAIL: Exactly, and I don't have a huge profit margin with llamas as it is. So it's having to look at additional income elsewhere to just try and continue to feed the animals.

CONAN: Who buys llamas?

GAIL: Well not so many people as there used to be, but people use them for their fiber and for packing in the mountains, which is of course very popular here in Colorado. But again, sales have gone down because people kind of see this as a luxury animal, as opposed to a necessity.

CONAN: And as you look toward other sources of income, what are you thinking about?

GAIL: Well, I'm a writer and a community organizer. So I'm always scrounging in general. So I'm just having to look at hopefully getting more grants for the kind of work that I do in community organizing and just hope that I can pull something together for them.

There are actually a lot of tales about people turning llamas and horses just loose on public lands now because people either can't find the hay, or they can't afford to buy the hay when they do find it. So they're just letting animals go because people aren't buying them, either.

CONAN: And that's terrible for the animals.

GAIL: Yeah, they can't survive that way.

CONAN: We hope - well, I'm sure you wouldn't do that, but...

GAIL: No absolutely not. Most of the animals here are actually rescued from difficult situations. So they're kind of welfare animals anyhow. But - well, I'll figure something out. But it's - but it was a real shock, and it's scary. We didn't have any snow at all in November. We had a little bit in the mountains in October, but so far it's not looking good for next year, and that's scary for all of us here. It's a ranching community in general. So it's hard on everyone.

CONAN: Hang in there.

GAIL: Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck, bye-bye.

GAIL: Bye.

CONAN: Gary McManus is an associate state climatologist for Oklahoma, where he analyzes state climate data and follows national climate trends. He joins us now from member station KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma. Good to have you with us.

GARY MCMANUS: Thanks, Neal, my pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And I gather the experience that we've heard about from Keith and just there from Colorado, that's not unusual?

MCMANUS: No, it's not, and, you know, we're hearing those types of stories from all across the Southern Plains and now the Northern Plains over the last one to two years. And, you know, I grew up in northwest Oklahoma, a little bit farther out in the Panhandle.

And as I go back to visit family, I see this type of damage that is occurring, and it is pretty drastic, and it is heartbreaking.

CONAN: What's the difference? How do you see the difference?

MCMANUS: Well, you can just tell by the land. Whenever you see the land looking like it's winter when it's actually the summertime, that's a pretty good indication of what's going on. And then when you start to see the breakdown of those natural grasses in those pastures, whenever those grasses that are supposed to be here start to die, that have been developed by Mother Nature over the last, you know, 100,000 years to specifically be, you know, proper for this area, then you know that things are getting pretty serious.

CONAN: Put this in context for us. Is this epical?

MCMANUS: Well not quite yet. Of course, you know, the central part of the United States, the Northern and Southern Plains, we're home to some of the epic droughts of American history, the 19-teens, the 1930s and 1950s. But we can say, you know, for this last one- to two-year period that it is, you know, rivaling any of those shorter-term droughts we've seen over the last 30 or 40 years.

Now as we get farther back in history, again that '30s Dust Bowl drought, or the '50s drought, those were decadal scale droughts, you know, five to 10 years. This drought is still in its infancy more for the Northern Plains. The Southern Plains has been in this drought for going on three years now, specifically my area in Oklahoma.

We've had areas that haven't had decent rainfall for well over two years now. And, you know, Nebraska's starting to suffer that fate, as well as Kansas.

CONAN: Some of us saw those terrifying descriptions of the storms, the Dust Bowl storms and the Ken Burns documentary that aired recently. I expect that was a little tough to watch there in Oklahoma.

MCMANUS: Right, you know, we're the home of the Dust Bowl, where the term was coined out in the Panhandle. And of course I grew up listening to a lot of relatives talk about the Dust Bowl. Now of course we hope that that type of situation wouldn't occur again with, you know, improved farming practices, and we don't plow up the soil and leave it to the wind as much as we used to.

So - but, you know, you never say never and, you know, if this drought were to extend another three, four, five years, you know, the damage could be catastrophic.

CONAN: And is there any way to predict what's going to happen?

MCMANUS: There's really not. You know what climatologists could do as they look into the future, what they can do is they can look at sort of what the weather patterns are and specifically the oceanic patterns. How do the oceanic patterns now resemble the oceanic patterns of the past?

You know, there is some indication is that what we see now is what was occurring during the 1950s. But, you know, it's really what we don't know that ends up being important a lot of times. And a lot of times we're just sitting here waiting for a reaction to what's occurring rather than looking forward.

And I'm afraid for a lot of us folks here in the central part of the United States, that's what we're really going to have to do: be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.

CONAN: In the meantime, this is again one of the warmest years on record.

MCMANUS: Yes it is, you know, specifically for Oklahoma, we're very close to breaking our year for warmest year on record, 1954, and that was really built in the early parts of the year, when we had our warmest March on record and warmest spring on record. So - but it's just continued all the way through summer and to the fall.

And, you know, that has an impact. That makes that drought worse because it has own problems. It increases evaporation, causes things to grow longer. So it's all related.

CONAN: If the drought's changed your life, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Or zap us an email, talk@npr.org. More in a minute. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here's an email from Justin in Augusta, Kansas: Our city of 9,000 has been on water restrictions for two summers now. We were forced to drain our lake, our one source of water, by the Army Corps of Engineers to fix the dam. Now the lake is not filling back up because we have not had decent rain in months.

Our yards are dead if you don't have a private well, and any business that uses water is restricted on the amount of work they can do in our town. We need rain, and a bunch of it, and snowfall has been nonexistent for two winters.

The drought continues to plague much of the West. Consumer across the country are starting to feel its effects. Beef and chicken prices are up since the crop's farmers feed their herds and flocks with corn. Soybeans wilted and died in the fields over the summer. Even if the drought ends tomorrow, the damage in many industries won't be reversed for a long time to come.

Take Minnesota's Christmas tree growers, for example. The dry summer and fall have killed many young trees, which sets up a shortage of mature trees six to 12 years from now. So if the drought's changed your life, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org.

Gary McManus, associate state climatologist for Oklahoma, is our guest. Joining us now is Mark Fletcher. He's the co-owner of Ceres Barge Lines in East St. Louis, and we talked to him earlier this year, and nice to have you back on the program.

MARK FLETCHER: Hello, Neal, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks. I wonder: How's your business changed? And we hear water in the Mississippi is very low.

FLETCHER: Well, it is. We did get some relief here in the last week or so. Caro and South(ph) there were some rains that pushed through the Lower Mississippi, Caro and South(ph) to Tennessee to Cumberland Valley. So we actually - and all the way up to Pittsburgh. So actually it's not all bad news, at least from that section of the river.

We did get some additional flows off the Ohio coming down to the Lower. So we've kind of given ourselves some transportation relief, (unintelligible) South. The real problem area that we continue to have is from St. Louis to Caro(ph) specifically and the rivers above St. Louis.

CONAN: And the - I'd heard that some people wanted the Army Corps of Engineers to release water from the Missouri drainage area, and they're not willing to do it.

FLETCHER: Well, you know, it's a bit of a - I guess a bit of a political battle. The Corps doesn't think they have the specific authority to do that, I'm told. The common - for us in the industry, the common-sense thing that we asked for was, look, give us an additional 30, 60 days of water and releases off that system now, let's return that water in the spring by delaying the additional flows that they would normally do, say, March 31; in other words just shift the season so that theoretically the net impact would be zero to those upper river stakeholders, or at least we would hope that.

We certainly don't - you know, we're not trying to put any harm on anybody up in that part of the world, but we're also trying to provide two ways of relief: additional water flows today to allow the Corps of Engineers to develop their plan to hopefully remove some of the rock structures that are potentially going to cause us problems when the St. Louis gauge drops to minus-five or minus-seven on the St. Louis gauge.

CONAN: So blow up some of the rock obstructions and make the channel a little bit more accessible. But isn't that betting that there's going to be snowpack this winter, and that's going to provide the water - it just goes on and on, doesn't it?

FLETCHER: Well, it does. It goes on and on, and it is a bit of a Rubik's Cube when you try to weigh all the stakeholders. Look, the Army Corps of Engineers has done a terrific job keeping this river open all summer, and they've done a great job in the face of tight budget battles for themselves.

They're an agency that has to report to probably 16 other agencies. So I don't know if your listeners have more than one boss, but when you do, it's a bit of a challenge.

CONAN: As you look at the situation now, and as you hear people talking about the projections for next year, maybe it's going to continue, maybe it's going to be a problem, are you rethinking your business?

FLETCHER: Well, actually, it's funny you mention that. We are. I think in our business, and I've been in this since 1980, you know, we tend to be optimists all the time, and so we're always thinking, well, look, look, we're going to have a normal corn crop next year, for example.

But I think you have to look at the long-term prospects of droughts lasting two, three, four and five years. And in our memory, one of the significant droughts that affected the river system was the one that affected the Upper Missouri Valley, probably in the five to 10 years ago range. I don't know exactly the years, but I just recall record low levels in the four main stem reservoirs above Gavin's Point, which is above Sioux City, Iowa.

And that drought went on, it seemed like, for four or five years.

CONAN: Gary McManus, I wonder if you can help us out here.

MCMANUS: Well, I'm not really sure about that particular drought. We've had a series of shorter but severe droughts that probably connect together in different parts of the country. So we haven't had one of those large-scale, decadal-scale, four- to five to 10 year droughts. But, you know, those smaller ones can add together pretty quickly though.

CONAN: Well, Mark Fletcher, if you're looking at that prospect again, what are you going to do?

FLETCHER: Well, again, I think - I think what we can do is to look forward and say, look, we're an industry that relies heavily on grain exports in the covered hopper trade. We're an industry that relies heavily on natural resources to move, whether that's coal, rock, other commodities. So I think we have to look ahead and say, look, we have to say that there is a larger chance of drought coming for a fourth year, if you will, in central Illinois and the central growing states, than maybe perhaps we would think.

You know, you would think three of drought, surely to goodness we're not going to have a fourth year. But I think we have to give it more credence and adjust our business plan, at least going forward, as best we can. And again, there's not a lot I can do today for sales and business for next fall and beyond. But I think our mindset has to get adjusted first, and then we have to sit here and say how can - what are the things we can do?

How can we save costs? How can we get prepared for that if it does happen?

CONAN: And that's the mindset, you think, throughout the industry, throughout the valley indeed?

FLETCHER: Well, I think so, but I think, again, we're an industry that reacts. Look, every day the river changes. As an example, we had severe drought conditions starting to hit us again, Caro and South(ph) on the lower river, and that changed, if you will, in a matter of 48 hours when that front pushed up last weekend.

So we tend to look at everything that's hitting us in the near term and react to it. So I think we have to adjust our thinking and look a little more long term and say, OK, what does it mean to my balance sheet, what does it mean to my business if I have a drought for a fourth year?

And I think we have to think about that more than perhaps we would normally.

CONAN: Mark Fletcher, good luck, we hope you get some rain.

FLETCHER: Well, let's all do some rain, and particularly we need in St. Louis and north, and everybody in that part of the world do a rain dance.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much. Mark Fletcher the co-owner of Ceres Barge Lines, with us by phone from East St. Louis in Illinois. And Gary McManus, yeah, there's no way to predict, but in a warming world, are droughts more predictable?

MCMANUS: Well, you know, that's one of the things that's supposedly going to be more prevalent, would be our normal-type drought situations becoming more severe and also droughts becoming more frequent. So you know, there have been some studies that come out that say that's already been occurring and it probably has been occurring as we get warmer.

And one of the things that has changed also is that when it does rain, it tends to be a little more intense. That has its own ramifications, so more intense rainfall, more, you know, infrequent period; that increases runoff, so less soaking in the soil, more pollution, all sorts of things that can be caused by, you know, that type of impact of a warming world.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Roberta in Woodstock, Illinois: We live in a marshy area, so our sump pump usually goes off four or five times a day, year round. We have a nine-foot-deep basement, and the pump well is below that. We have not heard the pump go off since sometime in May.

This is a farming area, so I can only imagine what farmers are facing. This from Sara(ph) in Tulsa: As the tree roots leech out for water, they're uprooting foundations. Our foundation has shifted, causing cracks in the walls and an outside door that no longer opens.

Let's see, we can go to Jim, and Jim's on the line from Mammoth Lakes in California.

JIM: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JIM: Well, I run a dogsled business here up in Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. We're basically a tourist town, a ski resort. Last season, we did not even operate at all due - of no snow. And in the years prior to that, we haven't worked a full day, I think, since 2006, because it's just gotten too warm for the dogs. You can hurt a dog very easily.

And also with this drought, dog food prices have gone through the roof. We live - L.A.'s six hours away from us. So fuel prices have gone up. It's crazy what the weather is doing to us.

CONAN: And what are you going to do to adapt to it?

JIM: Well, I guess I'm just going to have to break out the golf carts with no engines in them and just run on dirt.

CONAN: So the dogs will pull the carts on dirt.

JIM: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Do you think the tourists will show up to do that?

JIM: Oh, they do, but it's not the real thing on snow.

CONAN: No, it's not. And if there's no snow there, I assume that Mammoth Lakes area drains down in towards Los Angeles?

JIM: Yes, sir. We - actually, the drainage here runs both Los Angeles and it runs Central California towards San Francisco, because we have the San Joaquin River behind us. So both directions run south and west.

CONAN: And not good news for either area.

JIM: Correct.

CONAN: Jim, good luck.

JIM: I appreciate it, sir. Have a great day.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tom, and Tom's with us from Dayton, Ohio.

TOM: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Tom. Go ahead.

TOM: Thank you. I run mostly a vegetable garden, me and my neighbors. And last few years we're getting good rain in the spring, sometimes too early in the spring, and then, you know, you don't get good rain again till it's too late.

And I've been going to the town and hauling their mulch leaves to my garden, and putting two or three inches of dead leaves on my garden and then going to the river and hauling water to just keep it alive. And I've been doing pretty good, so my neighbors just, you know, plow the gardens under.

CONAN: And so you've been able to keep crops growing despite the lack of good rain. And what about the river, though? How's that doing?

TOM: It's lower than normal in the summer, but it's still a good river. There's enough you can go and pump water out of it, you know? We're not that bad off, but it's - we seem to get more rain north of us than right here. There's more rain that flows under the Great Lakes, and that flows down the river to us.

CONAN: Is it always the way though? Somebody else gets the rain?

TOM: Yeah.


CONAN: Tom, we wish you good - what kind of vegetables do you grow?

TOM: Oh, I've got - so I have tomato plants six-foot tall this year, and, you know, kale and gourds and everything you could eat.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much. Look forward to it.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. We're talking about the drought, which is continuing to affect wide areas of the country. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Gary McManus, location, location, location, Ohio pretty well off compared to places like Nebraska.

MCMANUS: Yeah. You know, that's the way it works. Drought tends to move around, and somebody's getting the rain when you're not. Now, Nebraska's under a drastic situation, with some parts having just a couple of inches of rain this year. So those folks that got the good rain, they should be very thankful.

I spoke down in Southern Oklahoma, and some farmers were talking. And one farmer had gotten some pretty good rains, and another farmer said, you know what you should do if you get good rain and we didn't? The other guy said, what's that? And he said, well, you keep it to yourself. And, you know, that's sort of the sentiment. You know, we get the news out to the people that are really hurting, but those folks that got rain, you know, congratulations.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Gary's on the line with us from Boscobel in Wisconsin.

GARY: Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to comment that the way the drought here in Southern Wisconsin is affecting me personally is that I am involved with a nonprofit corporation that does prairie conservation and is trying to save bits and pieces of grassland that are left here in Northern Illinois, Southern Wisconsin and Central Minnesota.

And the drought is really, really hammering those precious genetic treasure chests very badly. The seed production has dropped way off. Blooming was started on a lot of the native plants, and then they dried up and then tried to rebloom late in the season. And Lord knows what's - what it's doing to the native insects that rely on those native plants and the soil organisms that rely on that whole circular network of biological diversity there.

So it's pretty scary to think of what's going to happen to some of these sites. We put years and years worth of management and conservation practices in to save that genetic material, to see it kind of weather away. And I was wondering if I could make a comment on the sandhills because I spend time there in the prairies and the sandhills too. Would that be possible?

CONAN: If you keep it quick.

GARY: I will. I had a place out there that would have been about a quarter of a mile east of where that Canadian gas pipeline would have went. You know, if they would have run that pipeline through those fragile sandhills with a drought like this, we'd have had a catastrophe that would have been unimaginable, a giant blowout that would have been at least 100, 200 feet wide and 100 miles long that would have never been able to be re-vegetated. So those are some of the consequences that we could have had if that pipeline would have went through those fragile hills. Thank you.

CONAN: I think it was an oil pipeline, not a gas pipeline, but I get your point, Gary. Thanks very much.

GARY: Yeah, yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: So long. And the native grasses, you were talking about that earlier, Gary McManus.

MCMANUS: Yeah. Those have been put there by Mother Nature, and they thrive because that's, you know, what Mother Nature does. She puts them there to keep that soil held down. When those start to die, something bad is happening, and that's what we've seen, especially out in the High Plains area of the Great Plains where those native grasses have started to really thin out and die.

CONAN: And if it's happening there, then you go to the more forested areas. Everything is drying out. We can expect a lot of more fires next summer, don't you think?

MCMANUS: Yeah. We saw that here in Oklahoma and we saw that in Texas last year. Whenever you get rain, it, you know, promotes vegetative growth. And then when you start to dry out again, that vegetation turns to fuel. We had a very bad fire outbreak here in Oklahoma in August and that came after, you know, a very warm and wet January through March when, you know, Oklahoma's vegetation thought it was already springtime, and it had multiplied rapidly, grown very rapidly. And you know, when the drought struck again in May, June and July, it all turned yellow. We were a magnificent shade of yellow across the state of Oklahoma in July and August. And sure enough, whenever we got the wind come up, the fires really broke out across the entire state.

CONAN: If you do get rain, of course then you're worried about lightning too. So that can start a lot of fires. Gary McManus, thank you very much for your time today, and we wish you rain.

MCMANUS: Yeah, I hope that for everybody here in the Great Plains, and thanks for having me.

CONAN: Gary McManus, associate state climatologist for Oklahoma. He joined us from member station KGOU in Norman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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