Waiting for Rain: The 2012 drought and American ranchers

Posted on October 26, 2012

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Many ranchers are worried that federal aid to help get over tough drought months won’t be enough. Ranchers in South Dakota are currently being forced to cut down their sheep herds due to feed shortage–but the animals aren’t going for as much as they were in 2011. And drought was the reason behind the surge in grass-stealing I reported earlier this month.

The worst drought the United States has seen in 25 years continues to affect American ranchers on all fronts.

Farm Futures reports that sections of Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming are still dominated by “exceptional drought.”  This means widespread loss of crops and pastures and major water shortages.

Meanwhile, the states of Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina and Utah are experiencing what is classified as “extreme drought,” marked by crop and pasture losses, water shortages, and enforced water usage restrictions.

In an effort to rescue thousands of American farms, the USDA has made a widespread effort to help drought-stricken farmers.  So far, the federal government has provided relief assistance to 1 million acres of American farmland.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service breaks down the amount of drought assistance granted to each of 23 states, with Arkansas, Colorado and Indiana topping the list.  This week alone, more than 8,000 Arkansas ranchers received disaster checks from the state government to help cope with the historic lack of rain.  A Sept. 28 article estimated the state’s drought-related losses at $128 million.

But the whole nation is going to feel repercussions from this severely dry season. The U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture estimates food prices will drive up 3% to 4% in 2013.  Usually food prices go by up about 2.5% annually, making this year’s spike only slightly above average, but sadly prices all over the world are already getting higher because of the U.S. crisis.  This is especially concerning in poverty-stricken nations.

“The United States is one of the biggest food producers in the world,” Professor Z. John Zhang told the online business journal for the Wharton School. “This drought is not going to just impact the marketplace here; it’s also going to hit in China, Africa, everywhere.  You can certainly imagine that the impact is going to be a lot bigger in developing countries than in the United States.”

Just how bad of an economic hit will American farmers take?  And for how long?  Only time will tell.  In the meantime, the suffering and fears experienced by farmers across the nation cannot be summarized by cold, hard statistics or tally sheets of relief checks.

A recent piece in the New York Times featured interviews from three dozen Midwest farmers.  They described how they had survived the driest year in decades. The article talked about the affects of stress on children and elderly farmers and ranchers working long and fruitless hours.

Next year the drought will hit pocketbooks of Americans as they go to the grocery store, and they will get just a tiny taste of what the drought has felt like for the nation’s food producers all year.  Until then, farmers and ranchers wait for relief from the long dry days of 2012, and wait with trepidation for what next year will bring.

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Posted in: Drought