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Kansas Feels Lingering Pinch From Drought

June 17, 2003

CIMARRON, Kan. (AP) _ Used cars sit unsold in this community. Merchandise languishes on store shelves. Stacks of lumber collect dust. Even barber chairs sit empty.

Such are the unexpected costs of drought.

The ripple effects from years of below-average rainfall has stifled many business in this southwestern Kansas community, a mirror image of what drought has wrought in portions of the Midwest and Plains.

``I’ve been doing this for 11 years and it’s the roughest times we’ve seen,″ said Scott Kelsay, who sells used cars and trucks. ``It’s all agriculture out here. If the ag sector isn’t doing well, you’re not going to do well.″

Unlike many rural Kansas communities, Cimarron isn’t on its last legs with a dying downtown. Its tree-lined Main Street is alive, and the town’s population has grown to 1,900.

But the drought has cut into what farmers earn, and in turn what they can spend in the stores and shops.

Sandi Coast has seen the change at her corner drug store.

``There’s probably not as much walk-in traffic, but you don’t leave the house when the budget is tight and you don’t have money to spend,″ she said. ``It makes our accounts receivable run a little higher during the drought times. More and more people are asking for credit.″

Coast said the drought made her look for other sources of revenue and has forced her to rethink what to put on the shelves.

``You try to buy what customers need and not go overboard,″ she said. ``We’re not stocking high-end jewelry and collector dolls.″

Tony Stauth has operated his one-chair barber shop since 1971 but doesn’t see his customers as often because ``when money is tight, you go longer between haircuts.″

But he’s not complaining. ``At least I don’t have a lot of money on the books. A lot of folks do and they are having a hard time collecting it,″ Stauth said.

Business at Danny Stephens’ lumber yard is down from a year ago, mostly due to a drop off in revenue from farmers and ranchers. ``Instead of putting up a new corral, they get a board and some screws and patch it up,″ he said.

Despite recent rainfall, few in Gray County are ready to declare an end to the drought as it goes into a third year, said Kurt Werth, county agricultural extension agent.

``We are so far behind that we will probably need 15 inches or more to get things put back,″ Werth said.

The National Climatic Data Center reported that at the end of April, 24 percent of the country remained in drought condition. But that was down from 37 percent in January and 50 percent last summer.

A streak of rainy days this spring restored soil moisture to normal levels across wide swaths of the Midwest and the central and southern Plains. But the rain may not be enough to undo the damage from years of drought.

The pain is very real in Kansas’ Gray County. According to figures from the Kansas Farm Management Association, net farm income in the county plunged from $99,829 in 2000 to $6,566 in 2002. Statewide it went from $39,197 to $19,106.

``It’s an indicator of what the situation is for farmers in Gray County who primarily make their living on the farm,″ said Michael Langemeier, a Kansas State University professor of agriculture economics.

As senior vice president at First National Bank in Cimarron, Steve Burns sees the problems firsthand. Farmers, he said, are suffering from both reduced yields and lower prices.

``For three years, they have been restructuring debt. Now in some cases we are suggesting they get government loans if they want to continue to farm,″ he added.

Burns said none of the community’s merchants have shuttered their shops because of the drought, but he sees the impact.

``Not only do the merchants have a loss of income, but things they sell on credit are getting spread out over a longer period of time,″ he said. ``The problem then is the merchants can’t meet their debts.″

Even so, Burns expects retailers will outlast the drought.

``We’ve been through this before. We’ve had hardships before. It’s a cycle that comes and goes. You have to endure it, but we’ll come through it,″ he said.

Kelsay, the car salesman, does what he can to survive. He said his business is about 40 percent off, which forced him to lay off two employees earlier this year.

Kelsay is increasingly stocking lower-priced older model cars on his lot because that’s what people are buying.

``They’re looking at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at, and even then they are still pondering,″ he said. ``They’re not wanting to spend money like they use to.″


On the Net:

Drought Monitor: http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html

National Drought Mitigation Center: http://www.drought.unl.edu

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