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Archive for Sunday, May 12, 2002

Drought ravages western Kansas

May 12, 2002


— Ken Keller watches silently as two insurance adjusters kneel down amid his winter wheat and inspect his crop.

By this time of year the plants should be knee-high and so thick he shouldn't see the ground. But these plants barely reach the top of his dusty boots as he strides through the sickly stand. Big brown patches of dirt show where the seed never sprouted or where patches of plants died and blew away.

As he waits, he digs his boot deep into the loose soil and makes a long furrow before hitting hardpan soil underneath. It's so dry, the ground below is cracked. Keller unsheathes a pair of pliers and inserts the handle into a fissure half an inch wide, prying loose clods of dirt as hard as rock.

Further down the field, he stops and easily pulls out a wheat plant with two fingers. Then another. Another. Still another.

His Farm Bureau insurance agent, Doug Morris, looks at him.

"It's like pulling radishes," Morris tells him.

"There is no way I can justify leaving this," Keller replies.

Both men know that the plant should have had a tap root so long by now that he should never have been able to so easily pluck it. But the tap root is less than an inch long, with the shell of the tiny sprouted wheat seed dangling at the end.

"Now you tell me how that thing is still alive," Keller says.

Morris has had 35 to 40 claims for drought losses so far, and he is busy taking adjusters out to his client's fields. Even a few of the irrigated fields he insured were torn up as losses.

While parts of the state have been battered with tornados, hail, heavy rains and flooding, people in far western Kansas have not seen any substantial rain since August. State climatologist Mary Knapp says the dry conditions, particularly in the southwest, are at Dust-Bowl levels.

Cattle industry

At the Syracuse auction yard in town, owner Steve Schneider is having a busy day with his dairy cattle auction. He expects the next day's beef auction to be busier than normal.

The number of cattle running through his sales rings are up 20 to 30 percent compared to this time a year ago. Pastures are so dry that cattlemen are still feeding hay rather than turning livestock out on grass.

"Some are liquidating their herds, some are culling a few and trying to hold on," he says. "But the dry feed is running out."

Cattle prices have fallen as more and more western Kansas producers cut back their herds in the lingering drought.

A 400-pound steer that brought $1.20 to $1.25 per pound in January is now fetching just 95 cents to $1 per pound in the sale ring, he says.

Among those who culled their herds is Susan McKinney, a cattle producer and program technician at the Farm Service Agency in nearby Johnson City.

She has sold all of her calf crop and old cows, cutting back the family herd by 10 percent. If rain doesn't come soon to grow the grass, she'll have to sell even more, McKinney says.

Other business suffering

At the John Deere dealership in Johnson City, salesman Ward Nairm says sales are down parts sales, complete goods sales, shop sales. And what business they are doing, he has to watch carefully in order to collect on accounts receivable.

"It's as bad as I have ever seen it," he says.

He was short-staffed going into the drought, and has not yet had to cut any employees. But he knows of other dealerships in western Kansas that are cutting back hours and workers.

"Everybody is tied with agriculture out here," Nairm says. "All businesses sell to farmers. All employees work for businesses who sell to farmers."

It is lunch time at the Wooden Horse restaurant in Johnson City, and the lunch crowd is roughly a third of its usual size. Restaurant owner Jerry Morris says it's been that way for the past three months, and his business has been halved in the past year.

He is borrowing against his equity in the restaurant to stay in business, much like the farmers have the past few years. His suppliers tell him their business is way down throughout all of southwest Kansas.

"Until we get some moisture, and a little bit of optimism for the farmer to think something good is going to happen, he isn't going to take any chances," Morris says.

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