Farmers Without Water

A severe drought covers about two-thirds of the country, and America's farmland states are some of the driest. Few expect this year's crops to escape undamaged, so the drought's effects will likely reach out to the entire world, and last through next year. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 55 percent of the country's pasture- and range-lands were in poor or very poor condition. Congress is set to take up a drought-relief bill Thursday. The Prospect interviewed George Naylor, a farmer and activist in Iowa, who relates below how the drought has affected him and his neighbors, and how the government is at fault.

We’ve had no rain. I’ve seen my crop deteriorate day after day. We’ve had week after week of temperatures in the 90s—one week the temperature was over 100 all week—so we’ve seen a lot of deterioration. Soybeans are kind of just sitting there without putting any pods on.

One of the worst droughts I experienced was in 1977, but that was my second year of farming so I barely had anything to compare it with. Just two miles south of me, farmers didn’t even harvest their corn because there wasn’t enough out there to bother—less than five bushels an acre. There’s probably going to be some corn like that in my county this year. A lot of corn did get pollinated, but since we’re not getting any rain it’s doubtful as to how many of the kernels will actually fill out. For me this year could be as bad as '77.

I hope to have some harvest, but I just don’t know at this time. I just had a storm come through that delivered, oh, about two hundredths of an inch of rain and a lot of wind that blew down some of my corn, so that’s going to complicate the corn harvest somewhat. Two hundredths of an inch of rain barely wet the bottom of my rain gauge. You’d have to have at least an inch of rain to make a real difference and ideally you’d have to have a two-inch rain and then have that followed a week later by another inch or two. You’d have to have at least an inch to give the crop a drink. Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, and Oklahoma—they’ve been tapping the Ogallala Aquifer for years, lowering its levels, using a lot of fossil fuels to pump the water up. That’s what they do in a normal year. But this year they’re having to pump inordinate amounts of water and so the expense is unbelievable.

We have record numbers of acres of corn being planted—we haven’t had this many acres of corn planted since 1937—so there’s very little capacity to produce more next year. There are no reserves. We’ve experienced droughts periodically through the years, and society usually had policies to deal with it by keeping reserves on hand. We don’t have those right now. This is really a man-made disaster, more than a disaster from Mother Nature.

I know most farmers raising corn and soybeans have crop insurance that’s going to get them through this year, but the rest of society, and future generations, have been damaged by the current farm policy we have. It’s been the bipartisan policy of this country since 1953 to destroy the New Deal farm programs, and to switch to what they call market-oriented farm policy. The bad part is that through the years, because we’ve had market-oriented policy, we’ve encouraged farmers to plant fence row on fence row, we’ve driven livestock into big feedlots, and we’ve conveyed the idea to our citizens that food should be really cheap. We think we should just be able to go to the grocery store and buy all kinds of meat, milk, and eggs very cheaply, and now this drought is going to make all of those items much more expensive. If we had run our agricultural system with more conservation in mind and keeping livestock on family farms, the land would have been much more capable of rebounding when we got rain. Farmers might have been able to store forage on their farm. Instead, the livestock in this country depend on eating grain, and since it’s been the federal government’s policy not to have any reserves, and to clear the market with every year’s production, there are no reserves left. This is the worst imaginable agricultural situation you could have. And it’s all because of the policy of this country.



George Naylor farms in Churdan, Iowa and is a former president of the National Family Farm Coalition. He recommends that you read Dust Bowl: The Souther Plains in the 1930s by Donald Worster, and the progressive farming newsletter Food First.

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