For some, wet weather would be welcome

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Sick to death of our wet, nasty weather? We are too.

But, believe it or not, there's an important group of people out there who would be thrilled to have it: farmers to the west and north of Southeast Missouri.

Last summer, farmers in the West and upper Midwest watched as crops shriveled under cloudless skies. Their incomes also shriveled. Missouri recently released a report that estimated crop and livestock losses at $251 million in 2002. That had a ripple effect, meaning another $209 million blow to the economy if you factor in reduced spending and other economic activity.

Farmers nationally saw their income plunge by 22 percent last year -- to the lowest level since the agricultural recession of the mid 1980s.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 29 Missouri counties, mostly in the northwestern part of the state, as agricultural disaster areas because of the drought that occurred last summer.

Over the last year, the USDA has declared several other states, particularly in the western plains and mountain states, as agricultural disaster areas.

The disaster designations make farmers eligible to apply for low-interest loans that they can use to restore or replace property, offset production costs, pay some living expenses, reorganize farming operations and refinance debt.

That helps, no doubt, but adding debt is not something most farmers want instead of good rainfall during the growing season.

Unfortunately, the weather of 2002 was nothing new. Farmers are facing their third or fourth year of drought. That has farmers depressed and stressed. Some are calling hotlines for counseling.

Things may be better this year, however, the USDA said last week. If normal weather returns, farmers could plant more wheat, corn and cotton this year. The results would be mammoth corn crops, a wheat crop of 2.07 billion bushels and a cotton crop of at least 16.5 million bales weighing 480 pounds each.

But that assumes normal weather. With recent trends, that's a risky assumption. Agricultural experts, burned by past predictions, are reluctant to say what they think will happen this summer.

Southeast Missouri has had few weeks go by without snow, rain or both this winter. That has meant headaches for some, such as fender-benders, missed school and countless mornings shoveling snow.

But for Southeast Missouri farmers, a wet winter could mean a bountiful summer. Think about that the next time you consider cursing the clouds.

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