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Most of the US Needs Rain, Including Parts of IL & IA

It’s been a dry winter for most of the US. That’s raising concerns about a repeat of 2012’s drought, the worst since the Dust Bowl that cost farmers, ranchers, and governments 30 billion dollars. 

Harvest Public Media’s Madelyn Beck reports on the early signs of drought.

BECK: Ken Schafer’s farm is in the driest spot in Illinois.

SCHAFER: “It’s the first winter I can remember not having to wear boots...I don't like wearing boots that much, but being dry is another thing.”

BECK: He’s showing me around his family farm in Jersey County. It’s in the southwest part of the state, just north of St. Louis. Schafer has cows,

SCHAFER: “Oh, baby's nursing.”

BECK: But he and his brother also farm hundreds of acres of soybeans, corn and winter wheat. He says this is the driest he’s ever seen it in winter … even drier than in 2012, when the drought really took hold in late spring.

SCHAFER: “In 2012 we at least started with some water in the ground...You know I dug some post-holes this winter, and it's just dust.”

BECK: While the weather is out of Schafer’s hands, he says he can plan out how he plants and…

SCHAFER: “We’re going to have good crop insurance”

BECK: When natural disasters occur, crop insurance payouts are huge and the federal government tends to pick up most of the tab. In 2012, insurance payments were more than double recent averages -- costing the federal government 12 billion dollars.

It’s been rough this winter: The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports varying levels of drought covering most of the nation -- it’s especially bad in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado… and it’s spreading.

But that doesn’t mean this growing season is a bust.

ANGEL: “But there's nothing to say we can't turn it around with, you know, a wet month or two.”

BECK: That’s Jim Angel, the Illinois State Climatologist.

ANGEL: “We've had a couple of years where it looked like we were going to have a drought and then it gets wet in the spring and all concern goes away.”

BECK: But, Angel is concerned about the dry conditions, especially because there’s a similar, unusual pattern to the winter of 2012. He says there’s been two La Niña winters in a row: meaning everywhere but the northeast and northwest sees mild and dry conditions.

ANGEL: “So, there again, it doesn't guarantee anything, but it is an interesting coincidence.”

BECK: Illinois may be in a better situation than western states, though. Out there, storms and rainfall are fewer and farther in between.

ANGEL: “And then there’s some expectation that’s the way it will move in the future, that we'll continue to get wetter and they'll continue to get drier.”

BECK: In southwestern Colorado, there’s a town called Mancos. That’s where Dustin Stein, a young farmer in his 30’s, has spent the last few drought-riddled years as a cattle rancher. In fact, his first year on the ranch was 2012.

STEIN: “And that’s one of the challenges of young and beginning farmers is that we don’t have the historical experience of kind of how bad this year is.”

BECK: He says droughts make it hard to grow enough grass to feed the cattle, which in turn means ...

STEIN: “You’re forced to sell off your assets in a way that helps you keep your other assets alive.”

BECK: Stein says young farmers have to adapt; he’s even growing hydroponic barley as spare feed.

But adapting only goes so far when it comes to Mother Nature. So Stein will keep tabs on grass as spring arrives .. because dead grass is a bad sign.

The Illinois climatologist says he’ll know the Midwest is in for drought if it’s still dry through May.

And as for Schafer in southern Illinois, “I kinda wonder if we have enough moisture to germinate seed right now” He says he’ll need some rain before April.

Madelyn Beck, Harvest Public Media.