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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Hope Has Dried Up on Farms

A crippling drought in the nation's breadbasket brings home to growers their dependence on federal aid. Many despair at their plight.

September 16, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN CITY, Kan. — The sun spun through the broad prairie sky, day after day after merciless day. The corn wilted. The soybeans withered.

Those farmers who had wells drew on them day and night, spraying each parched field with 300, 400, 500 gallons of water a minute--every minute, around the clock, for months. All that water scarcely dampened the soil. Most evaporated before it hit the ground.

Drought has seared much of America's breadbasket barren this summer, burning millions of acres of corn, beans and sorghum. There won't be much of a harvest this autumn. Nor much of a planting season. In many of the country's most fertile plains, farmers will scatter their wheat seeds this month on soil as dry as concrete.

The drought, as bad in spots as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, has broken spirits. And it has prompted reflection--unhappy reflection--about the future of farming in these vast, rich plains when the only money to be made comes from handouts.

Even in fine weather, grain farmers in the heartland rely on federal subsidies to make ends meet. Usually, they can point to the bursting bins of inexpensive food they produce as justification for the aid. This year, though, thousands have little to show for their government checks--just rubbery ears of corn pocked with five or eight desolate kernels, just stunted stands of soybeans with yellowing leaves.

The subsidies feel, more than ever, like welfare.

"How do you not feel embarrassed?" asks Robert Drees, a farmer here in western Kansas.

The Senate last week approved $6 billion in emergency disaster aid for farmers and ranchers stricken by drought. Farm families are begging a reluctant House to take similar action. The truth is, though, that many can't see an end to the emergency. The drought may ease. But these months of ferocious sun have brought home the stark truth of their predicament.

With a bumper crop or with no crop at all, they are dependent.

"They've spent a lot of time crying and praying," said Kathy Bosch, who counsels farm families in Nebraska. "They've lost their sense of control."

Nearly half of all farm income comes from the federal government these days. That figure fluctuates from year to year, depending on commodity prices, but it's been rising steeply since 1996 and is now near a record high. Nationwide, the average annual subsidy is more than $36,000. Many of the larger producers, who carry hundreds of thousands in expenses for seed, fertilizer and equipment, get more. In Kansas alone, dozens of farmers received subsidies topping $200,000 last year. A handful took in more than $500,000.

Drees stares out the window of his pickup. The purple dusk deepens into another rainless night.

Autumn is usually a joyous season for him, the brimming loads of corn, alfalfa and sorghum sweet payoff for months of sweat. This year, though, his emotions are as blistered as his land. He planted 1,200 acres of sorghum on "dryland" fields that aren't irrigated; they depend on summer rains for water. More than half of those fields produced crops so sparse, he won't bother to harvest. On the remaining acres, he'll be lucky to get 10 or 15 bushels to the acre. His standard yield is 70.

Drees would welcome emergency drought aid. Yet he's ashamed to be asking for it, especially in a recession that has so many Americans hurting.

"We start sounding like a bunch of never-ending whiners with our hands out," he says.

The 1996 Freedom to Farm bill ended a decades-old system of paying farmers not to plant. The goal was to wean rural America off subsidies. It failed. Free to plant whatever they wanted, farmers produced way more than the market could bear. Prices plunged and taxpayers ended up fronting farmers more than ever.

The new farm bill, passed this year, keeps the subsidies flowing. It will cost $180 billion over the next decade.

"How do you tell the computer engineer who just lost his job that farmers need billions more subsidies?" Drees said. "How do you tell the person who had his whole retirement in Enron stock?"

Drees, 44, farms the land that his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather farmed before him. He is the first to figure federal subsidies into his annual business plan. He won't say how much money he gets. He will say it seems like an awful lot for one man, though without it, he'd never break even, much less support his family.

"I don't want to say that we've lost our pride," he murmurs. "I didn't get into this business to get government payments. But I don't see how we can survive without."

He pauses. "If there's a way to say thank you to the country, I'd like to say it."

*

The drought shows up on weather maps as an angry swirl across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, the Eastern Seaboard.

The National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., reports that two-thirds of the United States is gripped by at least moderate drought. More than 40% of the nation's land mass is suffering drought classified as "severe" or worse.

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