Drought of 1999

Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail
July 25, 1999

'We're beyond loans; this is survival now'

By Tara Tuckwiller
Sunday Gazette-Mail

Upper Tract - "It's bone-dry in Harrisonburg, bone-dry over in West Virginia," the radio announcer declared cheerfully. "Not a cloud in sight."

The drought report clicked off, replaced by the comforting strains of Patsy Cline. Raymond Phares crouched next to his small radio in the meager shade of a lone tree, in an empty expanse of parched weeds and dirt that used to be a field. He tinkered on a well-used backhoe with a screwdriver.

"I keep 32 head of cattle, but I have my own construction business, too," said Phares, shifting his weight. Stalks of dead grass cracked under his feet like pretzels.

"You're lucky if you clear $5,000 on the cattle, and that's just counting feed and equipment. That's not counting the time you put in or anything."

Phares smiled.

"It's just a way of life. We work someplace else so we can spend money farming.

Normally, the Riverton man would be putting up hay right now, or working with his cattle. He rents 200 acres, and his father owns a 1,000-acre farm.

But the hay is dead. The cattle are gone.

"Sold," Phares said. "Dad got rid of all his, too. Everybody's got the same story."

Across West Virginia, farmers are clogging the slaughterhouses with cattle they can no longer feed. The winter snows never came. The spring rains never came. For months, farmers have spent half the day hauling water for miles to keep their cattle alive, but now the streams have dried up.

The crops have dried up, too - hay, corn, apple orchards. Some farmers have already seen their entire year's profits turn into debts.

With every calf slaughtered early, the second-biggest slice of West Virginia's economy is bleeding away.

Here in Pendleton County, the 100-degree sun blazes down, roasting the already parched grass. Finishing the job.

Hay seems out of reach

Reva Hevener, 73, pulled her truck into the driveway of her family's chicken farm on a dry ridge in Deer Run. She's been hauling water for weeks to keep the beef cattle side of the operation going.

The Perdue corporation buys the family's poultry, so they have to raise it to company specifications. That means washing down the huge chicken house this week to kill bacteria, a three-day job.

"We've got to clean 2,400 nests, 150 fountains, spray the coops down and disinfect," Hevener said. "That's a lot of water."

Hevener's grandfather, and her husband's grandfather, farmed this same land. Her grandson, Davy McConnell, started building the family's beef cattle herd when he was in high school, nine years ago.

He's already started selling them off. No hay to feed them.

"I've got 140 brood cows left," McConnell said. "Biggest part of them's going to have to go down the road.

"If I could just get my hands on some hay..."

Hay seems out of reach. Anyone with hay knows the farmers are desperate, and they're selling at more than twice the usual price, plus the cost of trucking, Good alfalfa's selling for $200 a ton, about four bales. McConnell needs 700 bales to keep his herd going.

"I sit and wonder about it every day," McConnell said, scuffing at a tuft of dead weeds in the bare dust. "I don't even know what would happen if we did get rain. Whether this grass would come back or not."

The drought has made McConnell wonder whether he should have gone to college for an office job, and turned his back on farming.

"If I had it to do over, I would've, maybe," he said. "Farming, there's so many ups and downs.

"I don't know. I'd probably still be here."

I'm not going to face it anymore'

This drought, which started last July, is already on a par with the 1931 Dustbowl in West Virginia.

Cam Tabb, a Jefferson County farmer, just sold his wheat for the same price per bushel as his grandfather got in 1945.

"We had $78 million in crop losses as of Tuesday," said Tabb, who serves on the USDA Farm Service Agency for West Virginia. "That's not even counting cattle or pasture. That $100 million estimate [of drought losses], even though it sounds like a lot, is actually a conservative estimate."

The drought is decimating West Virginia's agriculture industry, which is second only to the state's extractive industries - coal, gas, oil and limestone combined.

Nothing can be done for farmers with corn, soybeans or apple orchards. They can only hope for federal cash assistance. But hay or grain, donated by the government or by farmers in other states, could save the state's cattle farmers.

"This'll haunt us for a long time, if we can even recover at all," Tabb said. "We've got to keep these farmers from liquidating their herds, somehow."

Some farmers are already being forced to sell off their entire herds. Years of low prices have worn them down, and this year's drought has forced them out. They will probably never farm again.

"Mainly older farmers," said Dave Seymour, WVU's Agriculture Extension Agent in Pendleton County. "They're saying, 'This is it. I'm not going to face it anymore.'"

Poultry farmers, who usually have deep wells, are a little better off than cattle farmers, who usually rely on shallow springs. But poultry is a water-guzzling operation, and one or two Pendleton County poultry farmers are already hauling water.

"Every week will be one or two more," Seymour said. "When's the point they start falling like dominoes?"

'Freedom to Go Bankrupt Law'

West Virginia's farmers can't do much besides wait. Wait for rain, which isn't forecast. Wait for government disaster relief, which seems to move so slowly.

"It's a bureaucratic nightmare," said Steve Hanna, executive director of the West Virginia Farm Bureau. "It really has to get bad before the machinery even starts moving."

The U.S. government has emergency plans for almost every type of natural disaster. Floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes.

"Everything except drought," said Billy Burke, who heads the Farm Service Agency.

Burke was asked to fly to Washington, D.C., Friday to testily before the National Drought Commission. Congress set up the commission to figure out how to respond faster to droughts.

"I had to explain to these people, some of whom are from areas of the country that are flooded right now, about the programs Congress cut out with the 1996 Farm Bill," Burke said.

In 1996, Congress passed a bill that killed cost-sharing programs for livestock feed, and did away with many price-support programs. Congress called it the "Freedom to Farm Law."

"That was a tremendous misnomer," Burke said with a laugh. "'Freedom to Go Bankrupt Law,' a lot of farmers said."

Congressional Democrats from drought-stricken states, including West Virginia, have proposed an $8.3 billion supplemental appropriation for farmers to help make up for the 1996 cuts. It includes some loans, but mostly cash assistance.

Burke worries that lawmakers from other areas of the country, where there is no drought, won't vote for the proposal.

"Somehow . . . we're doing our best to get the message to them," he said. "I've spent most of my life doing this. This is the worst situation I've ever been in."

Burke plans to return to Washington to ask for Emergency Conservation Program assistance for West Virginia. That money is already appropriated in the 1999 budget, and it can be used to drill wells, develop springs and build ponds.

Those are long-term solutions. On Friday, Burke hand-delivered more than 150 pages of farm-loss statistics to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in an effort to get Secretary Dan Glickman to declare West Virginia a disaster area, to pave the way for immediate help.

"They immediately took them and started processing them," Burke said.

"They said they're going to work over the weekend and take them to the secretary first thing Monday. I'll be up there. I'll be checking on it."

For now, farmers' best hope is a hay lift that farmers in Illinois and Indiana have proposed. Farmers in those areas have said they want to donate tons of hay, and Hanna's office is trying to coordinate the trucking.

The National Guard could haul the hay on Gov. Cecil Underwood's orders, if state Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass declares the need, Tabb said.

Tabb hopes a hay lift would convince more farmers to hang on, and not sell out. Even if a federal disaster declaration comes through, it would probably make low-interest loans available, rather than cash assistance at first.

"Loans are something we don't need at this point. That would just dig us a deeper hole," Tabb said. "We're beyond loans; this is survival now."


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