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Drought and the Family Farm
By Julie Gause

An extreme drought coupled with depressed prices has caused a major disaster in farming communities throughout many Southern states. Three of the states most seriously affected by the drought — Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia — suffered some of the worst conditions experienced in the past three decades.

hay & beans
Hay shows through a soybean field, which normally grows large enough to hide the stalks.
   A drought affects every farmer, from those who grow row crops (cotton, soybeans, tobacco, wheat and corn) to those who raise cattle. University of Tennessee Extension Agent Mike Gordon said early indicators suggest a very low yield from row crops. For example, in some areas of Tennessee, cotton production fell from approximately 713 pounds per acre in 1997 to 375 (projected) pounds per acre in 1999. The pastureland belonging to cattle farmers from all three states lies in ruins because the ground lacks the moisture needed to replenish the grass after the cattle grazes. In Kentucky, instead of harvesting their soybeans to sell, some farmers cut the dry, bare stalks to use as hay or even plowed the crop under to take a total loss, said Kathleen Keeney, an extension agent in the University of Kentucky Extension Office in McCracken County.

    According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), all of Tennessee and Kentucky experienced extreme drought conditions (minus 3.00 inches and more below normal) from July through September 1999. The Virginia state office of the Farm Bureau Federation reports even though recent hurricanes have returned moisture to the region, Virginia's crops remain in disastrous shape because of its dry summer. According to the Memphis office of the National Weather Service, total rainfall amounts during the crucial months of July and August fell short of normal by approximately 4.83 inches. Keeney said rainfall totals in Kentucky remained at least 10 inches below normal, despite the rain received in recent weeks. In the north-central counties of Virginia, springs, ponds and wells remain dry even after many inches of hurricane rain, said Pete Martens, a Virginia Tech extension agent in Rockingham County.

   "Technically, Virginia is still in both a hydrological and an agricultural drought," said Patrick Michaels, state climatologist. "Springs will take a while to come back; it could take a year or more." Tim Roberts, a UT extension agent, said Tennessee's crops looked great, even above average, until the end of July. When the dry weather continued into August, the farmers knew trouble lay ahead. The condition of the crops started to deteriorate toward the end of August, and now things appear hopeless, he said.

dry beans
A good yield of beans in West Tennessee.
   "The rainfall is too late," he said. "It might help the pasture land, but it's better for the soybeans and cotton to not get any at all." Farmers in Kentucky and Virginia face the same problems. Rockingham County, Va., received five inches of rain from Hurricane Dennis, but it arrived too late to help anyone's corn or soybean crops. Extension Agent Martens said even though the rain helps farmers' pastures a little, after all the grass dies in December their hay supply will not be able to support their livestock through the winter. Because of the drought, farmers had to feed their cattle hay in the summer, and without rain, the supply of grass and hay never replenished. Kentucky received some rain in September, but it only served to raise spirits, as well as some streams and ponds, Barren County farmer Neil Allen said.

   "As far as feeling better and looking better, yes (the rain did help). Crop wise it's too late for all that," he said. Low market prices for their harvest adds to the problems faced by all farmers.

    The Farm Bureau Federation tracks issues concerning American farmers. Stefan Maupin, assistant director of public affairs and research for the Tennessee Farm Bureau state office, said a couple of factors drove prices down. The first concerns the location of the drought. In the major production states of the Midwest and the Plains, farmers project a record-setting harvest, such as the corn crop in Iowa. This over-abundance of product more than compensates for the low yields in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and other states affected by the drought.

Bill Parker runs the combine across fields near Nutbush, Tenn.
    The second involves the surplus of agriculture products already held by the United States. A huge trade deficit exists in the agricultural market, with overall exports dropping from approximately $60.4 billion in 1996 to $49 billion in 1999, while agriculture imports increased by about $6 billion, Maupin said. The Asian financial crisis contributed substantially to this deficit, as well as poor economies in Russia, much of Eastern Europe and Latin America.

    None of this news bodes well for the American family farm. "I've farmed for 45 years, and I've never seen farmers hurting as bad," said Jack Duer, a vegetable buyer in Northampton County, Va.

    After hearing appeals for assistance from farmers, elected officials from Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, along with representatives from other states, appealed to Washington for federal disaster aid. Maupin said two programs exist to grant relief from weather-related disasters. In September, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman granted all 95 counties in Tennessee disaster status, and since July he has also granted that status to areas of Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. To date Kentucky and Virginia farmers have received Emergency Conservation Program allocations of over $1.2 million and $2.9 million respectively, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

empty stalks
Soybean stalks, usually full with beans, are almost barren.
   Maupin said farmers and state representatives addressed Congress about the need to expedite disaster aid. In one disaster relief program, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) makes low-interest (3.75 %) government loans to any affected farmer who meets qualification standards. The FSA limits these loans to an amount equal to 80 percent of production loss with a maximum debt of $500,000. In a second type of disaster assistance from the USDA, aid goes to farmers already enrolled in federal farm programs who qualify to receive grants based on production loss calculated from average yields in past years. Martens said although all the programs provide relief to some farmers, many still hold little hope. In his county the most farmers raise cattle for dairy and beef and/or poultry. With a shortage of water, many farmers had to sell part of their herds, but disaster relief covered much of the loss experienced by cattle farmers. Poultry farmers, on the other hand, originally received no assistance. He said farmers earned a major victory for federal relief when the FSA, the agency that distributes disaster relief to victims of the drought, convinced Congress to include poultry farmers in the aid bill.

    The government designed these programs to help preserve the small farms of America, but without improved prices and trade-relations, the farms remain in very real danger, Maupin said. Some farmland preservation movements are picking up speed, but their design helps to protect the land from development and not necessarily to keep it in the hands of small farmers. Sometimes a business only profits when operated on a certain scale, and farming in the 21st century may be in that category, he said.

    Land-grant universities, like UT, UK and Virginia Tech, offer extension services through their agricultural departments. Extension offices in each of the state's counties offer programs designed to help farmers through rough times. Extension Agent Gordon said his office offers financial services to farmers that help them plan for next year. They enter numbers into a computer to decide what to spend for next year's crop, including the amount of money to spend on equipment, seed, fertilizer and chemicals.

dry beans
Drought-stricken soybeans (left) shrivel and lose oil content.
   Another important decision concerns booking crops in advance of harvest to guarantee a price. The extension office gives information on market indicators needed to make that decision. An important piece of advice offered by Gordon involves scheduling a soil analysis for this fall to determine the needs of the soil. Because of the drought, the plants depleted the soil of the nutrients necessary for production, and through analysis the farmer learns how to prepare it for the next crop. Keeney said in Kentucky many farmers, especially those who grow tobacco, show interest in supplemental crops — from horticultural products such as cabbage or mums to aquaculture, or catfish farming — about which her office supplies information.

    Gordon said his office also provides referrals to counseling services to combat depression for those who seek help. Unfortunately, farmers are by nature a proud group and not likely to seek help unless the circumstances are dire.

    Roberts summarized the plight of Tennessee's farmers, as well as those in other drought stricken states: "We can't take many more years like this."

Julie Gause is a free-lance writer from Knoxville who's involved in Web editorial content at HGTV. The Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky offices of the Farm Bureau Federation, as well as the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, contributed to this article.
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