No end in sight for drought-stressed Mo. farms

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Relentless heat and historically dry conditions are showing no signs of easing in Missouri, with the National Weather Service predicting seven to 10 days of 100-degree temperatures in some parts of the state.

Lack of moisture is causing big problems for farmers and others who rely heavily on water for their livelihoods. Officials, however, said even an average amount of rainfall over the past few months would have made the heat difficult to bear.

"It's so dry, there's really not a lot of moisture left from the intense dryness of the last three or four months," said Chris Bowman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Pleasant Hill. "If we had gotten the rain we normally would get, we'd probably have dew points in the lower 70s. That would make it harder to heat up to the levels we're seeing now, but when you combine any kind of heat with high dew points, it gets uncomfortable really quick."

Gov. Jay Nixon on Tuesday said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved a request to designate all 114 Missouri counties as disaster areas. Eighteen Missouri counties, including Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Perry, Scott and Stoddard counties, were designated as disaster areas July 12, with the rest of the state receiving its designation Tuesday.

The designation allows farmers to qualify for low-interest emergency loans through the Farm Service Agency, said Terry Birk, executive director of the Cape Girardeau Farm Service Agency.

While those loans may help farmers short-term, they do have to be repaid, Birk said.

Farmers have eight months from the date of the declaration to apply for FSA loans to help cover part of their actual losses. State Treasurer Clint Zweifel authorized emergency 24-hour loan approvals for farmers seeking low-interest loans through the Missouri Linked Deposit Program following Tuesday's disaster declaration by USDA.

Recently the USDA reduced the interest rate for emergency loans from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent, and reduced the payment reduction on Conservation Reserve Program lands qualified for emergency haying and grazing in 2012 from 25 to 10 percent.

The drought has left a shortage of hay and pasture land, Birk said, with the price of hay doubling in recent weeks.

High temperatures this week have put the area under a heat advisory through 10 p.m. today, according to the National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky. Temperatures will top out in the upper 90s in the Cape Girardeau area with heat indexes reaching 105.

Nixon asked for the federal assistance last week. Heat, dry weather and a lack of snow last fall and winter have contributed to the difficult conditions for Missouri farmers and ranchers.

Drought conditions have hit especially hard in Southeast Missouri, which the U.S. Drought Monitor shows to be in extreme drought.

Farmers are getting hammered, and eventually consumers will be feeling the pain, too, said John Schoen, a 57-year-old Cape Girardeau County dairy farmer with 500 cows on 800 acres that have been in the family since the mid-1800s.

"This is a very serious situation all the way through to the consumer," Schoen said. "I've only experienced probably three droughts in my lifetime and this is probably the worst."

Schoen said many of his cows drink from ponds and creeks on his land, and those waters are drying up.

"Streams in this part of the country are about 50 percent of what they should be," he said. "Ponds are probably at 30 percent of capacity."

He said feed costs are skyrocketing because of the drought, up by about 30 to 35 percent over the past four weeks. That will translate into higher beef costs in three to six months, Schoen said, and dairy prices will go up, too, but not as quickly.

"I would say as far as the bottom line, it's going to go from what was a profitable year to one of survival mode," Schoen said.

Nixon, who was touring several farms Tuesday, said drought conditions also were posing a fire risk across the state.

"The long-range forecast means not only will our fire responders need to continue their vigilance, Missouri farmers also must be ready for the long haul with this weather, even as we head into harvest season," Nixon said.

The National Agriculture Statistics Service reports topsoil moisture is short in almost all parts of the state, and creeks and streams are running dry. Missouri's corn crop has declined significantly in recent days and more than 90 percent of livestock pastures are in poor condition.

The National Weather Service said that through Monday, the temperature has hit at least 90 degrees for 20 straight days in St. Louis and for 24 straight days in Columbia. That is tied for the sixth-longest stretch in St. Louis, equaling marks set in 2007, 1921 and 1901. The string of 90-plus-degree days is the fifth-longest for Columbia.

Kansas City is in the midst of its driest July on record and is on pace to have its highest temperatures, Bowman said. The period from April 1 to July 15 is the second-driest ever for the city, he said.

The deaths of 17 St. Louis residents since June 28 have been blamed on the heat, while two St. Louis County deaths are also classified as heat-related.

Many of those who have died either didn't have a working air conditioner, or weren't using it, St. Louis health officials said. The city has also asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come up with a better nationwide heat death reporting system so that jurisdictions can better learn from each other about what leads to death in an era when air conditioning, either in home or at cooling centers, is readily available.

Jeff Hershberger, a spokesman for the Kansas City Health Department, said the city has one confirmed heat death and six that are being investigated as possibly heat-related. That's about where the city was at this point a year ago, he said, when there were 21 heat deaths before summer's end.

"With it being dry like this, the heat index is pretty close to the actual temperature," he said. "That's a really good thing. When it's humid, it always feels a lot hotter and it's harder for a body to cool down. The fact that it's more dry is making the heat more tolerable for us."

Southeast Missourian business editor Melissa Miller contributed to this report.

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