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Drought cripples agriculture

By John Stencel

Weather conditions throughout the majority of Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico are now classified as “extreme drought.” While the advent of restrictions on lawn watering over the past several weeks has caused consumers along the Front Range to become more aware of the drought, farmers and ranchers throughout the region have been affected by it for a year or more.

Many are watching their crops come up just to shrivel and die in the field for lack of moisture. Livestock producers are facing the very difficult dilemma of having to either buy expensive forage or to sell flocks and herds, many of which they have developed over several decades.

On the heel of four years of very low commodity prices, these conditions are economically devastating and psychologically demoralizing. It is important that farm organizations, as well as state and federal authorities work together to mitigate the negative impact of the drought on family farmers and ranchers. Some programs already are available. Other assistance needs to be authorized by the U.S. Congress. Rocky Mountain Farmers Union applauds Governor Bill Owens and the Colorado Department of Agriculture for their efforts in securing the declaration of all Colorado as a disaster region, qualifying farmers and ranchers in these counties for a number of programs. These include existing disaster assistance programs in the areas of livestock, noninsured crops, emergency conservation, loans, and emergency haying and grazing.

Farmers Union also is working hard in Washington, D.C., toward the approval of disaster assistance funding for producers suffering losses in 2001 and in 2002. One of the Washington, D.C. newspapers recently carried an article from Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman stating that the new farm bill should eliminate the need for disaster assistance. This is not correct. In order to participate in most of the programs under the farm bill, a producer must have a crop. Sadly, many Western farmers will have no crop or a greatly diminished one this growing season.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union also will assist in clarifying crop insurance policies in regard to prevented planning and will participate in livestock feed coordination efforts.

In addition to dealing with the immediate crisis, I believe this is a time for us to look at future water needs and realities in our region. If last year’s debate on growth in the Colorado Legislature were taking place now, there would be a new dimension to these discussions. Concerns about water shortages in dry years would seem a lot more relevant.

I believe this also is a time to consider drought management practices and to explore new technologies, which enable plants to more efficiently use water.

While few people alive today have clear, personal memories of the dust bowl days of the 1930s, many farmers I talk to refer to the dust bowl as the last time weather conditions were as bad as they are now. It may be as dry as it was during the dust bowl, but thanks to much improved conservation practices, the results of the drought are not as devastating. Federal programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, establishment of windbreaks and erosion abatement programs, have greatly reduced blowing dust.

Perhaps as the agricultural community feels the pain of drought, it will spur us on to new discoveries and innovative programs that will make the next 50-year drought less devastating to rural Americans.

NOTE: For more information and action suggestions, see DROUGHT WIDESPREAD AND DEVASTING by clicking the news button above and then stories.