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Drought-Plagued Farmers Say Rain Was ‘Just Enough to Settle the Dust’

June 16, 1988

Undated (AP) _ Texas farmers burned the thorns off cactus to provide emergency cattle feed in a drought called the worst in a half-century, while growers in the Midwest bemoaned Thursday’s scattered showers as little more than tantalizing.

″It’s going to help a few farmers, but for most farmers it’s too little too late,″ said Dan Bowman, a meteorologist for WeatherData in Wichita, after some Kansas communities got more than 2 inches of rain and Joplin, Mo., got 1 1/2 inches Thursday morning.

Drought has plagued the nation’s midsection, where it’s as dry as it’s been since the Dust Bowl, and the Southeast, forcing farmers to sell off cattle they can’t afford to feed and to plow under shriveled crops. The June shortfall of rainfollows a dry winter and a parched spring.

Thursday’s showers, said Herb Kinnear of the Indiana Farm Bureau, were ″just enough to settle the dust. But it’s keeping the sun from shining and baking things. That’s one consolation.″

Another consolation was an additional $10 million in emergency state loans for up to 45,000 Hoosier farmers.

Elsewhere, barges along the Mississippi were stranded at low-water bottlenecks, fires were on the rise in Missouri and Georgia, and ginseng growers in Wisconsin were discovering that even they were suffering, although the exotic root thrives on arid soil.

In Washington, President Reagan appointed an interagency committee to deal with the widespread drought.

Texas ranchers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley are using propane burners to remove thorns from prickly pear cactus to allow cattle to graze on the water- retaining plants, said Kraig Gallimore of the Texas Department of Agriculture’s farmer assistance program.

However, the drought has struck so deep in some areas that ranchers have stopped the practice because even cactus is shriveling, he said.

In North Dakota, which the U.S. Agriculture Department said was hit hardest, an agricultural economist predicted losses from three major crops could total $2.7 billion this year.

The estimate accounts for losses in federal deficiency payments and turnover of the money in the economy, but not ″for the losses we’ll likely have on crops other than wheat, barley and oats,″ said Arlen Leholm, an economist with North Dakota State University.

Bill Lytle, a South Dakota climatologist, said the state normally gets 3-4 inches of rain in June and this year has only received 0.3 inches so far for the month.

″It’s worse than ’76. I think it goes back to ’34,″ said Lytle, who blamed the drought on a large high-pressure ridge that is diverting low- pressure storm systems north into Canada. Because the system covers most of the nation’s midsection, it’s likely to persist for some time, he said.

Firmin Rettinghauf, 72, whose three sons farm his land near Gilbertville in northeast Iowa, walked through his parched fields and proclaimed: ″There ain’t gonna be no crops. It’s the worst I’ve seen since ’36.″

In southwest Iowa, cattle farmers continued selling off herds as pastures baked in the sun and feed prices skyrocketed.

″The man in the cow business is having to sell his factory, is what it amounts to,″ said Gary Schwab, whose Lamoni Livestock Sales barn is reporting cattle sales 50 percent higher than a year ago. ″I’d rather take a beating than talk to a man about selling his herd.″

Two convenience store owners in Walford, Iowa, decided that if farmers were going to take a loss, they would, too.

The owners said their sign advertising ″Ice cream cones, 25 cents, until it rains″ will stay up until the area gets a drenching. Cones normally sell for 40 cents.

Dropping water levels in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers made the waterways unnavigable Thursday, hurting the inland shipping industry.

A seven-mile stretch of the Ohio River near Mound City, Ill., remained closed to all traffic while a dredge deepened a shallow channel. Dozens of towboats and barges were stranded.

Meanwhile, nearly 700 barges in the Mississippi River were tied up north and south of the Greenville, Miss., bridge because the river had dropped to the lowest levels since authorities began keeping records in 1872.

Georgia and Missouri reported an increase in forest fires due to abnormally dry conditions.

Hundreds of fires have broken out in the parched Ozark hills in recent months, and Missouri officials say it is the worst fire year since the 1940s for the Mark Twain National Forest.

The forest has seen 260 fires blacken 13,600 acres so far this year, said Bob Willis, of the U.S. Forest Service office in Rolla. In an average year, 5,000 to 6,000 acres are burned, he said.

More than 3,200 acres of Georgia forest land have been damaged so far in June, exceeding a five-year average for the entire month, said Bob Burns, a member of the fire control staff at Forestry Commission Headquarters in Macon.

Wisconsin ginseng growers, normally plagued by excess moisture, said even they were thinking about irrigation.

″It’s good news to be dry but it’s no good to be a desert,″ said Lyn Heise, 51, who grows about 10 acres of the medicinal root near Wausau. ″We like it much drier than the regular farmers who grow corn or soybeans, but even for us it’s going too long.″

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