Thursday, August 05, 1999

Farmers ask Ohio for help

Drought adds second blow

Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — Jerry Wolford had stunted ears of corn ready for politicians to hold Wednesday while television cameras recorded their concern about one of the worst droughts in state history.

        Even after months of scorching heat and below-average rainfall, the Pickaway County farmer could crack a smile about his makeshift method to get water to his cattle: a garden hose extended from the house into an old bathtub at the edge of a bone-dry pasture.

        But after Gov. Bob Taft and a group of bureaucrats, advocates and reporters left, the Wolfords and other farmers across Ohio still faced uncertainty about whether the government is going to help soften the two-fisted blow of wilting crop yields and depressed prices.

        Like their colleagues in other parts of central and southern Ohio, farmers around this town, 25 miles south of Columbus, are projecting production losses of 30 percent to 100 percent. The drought likely will force organizers of the community's signature event — the Circleville Pumpkin Festival — to seek jack-o'-lantern supplies from outside the county this fall.

        “This won't just affect us this year, but years down the road if we don't start getting rain,” Mr. Wolford said as he and Mr. Taft walked along a dry creek bed. “I can't remember it ever being this bad.”

        A panel of state and federal officials is scheduled todayto review damage estimates from across the state, the first step in a process that

        could provide drought-stricken farmers with low-interest loans and other assistance.

        As Congress debates competing versions of an emergency aid package, the governor backed farmers who say they need more than loans already offered to Mid-Atlantic states, along with parts of Ohio and Kentucky, that have been declared federal drought disaster areas.

        Mr. Taft sent another letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman requesting money for programs to cover uninsured crop losses, emergency livestock feed and water-well development. The governor also urged the state's congressional delegation to help.

        “We are being hit very hard, and farming is part of the lifeblood of Ohio,” Mr. Taft said during a tour of a barren pumpkin field owned by Brent and Kathy Rhoads. “Our focus now is to get the federal government to fund these existing programs.”

        With fruits and vegetables for their well-stocked farmer's market, and saplings to sell to nurseries, the Rhoadses may be better prepared to withstand the crisis facing grain and livestock producers.

        But when a creek running through their farm went dry, they ran out of water to irrigate blackberry bushes ready for harvest. Fields of soybeans and corn nearby stand less than half as high as they should, and are more prone to damage from pests, Mr. Rhoads said.

        The farm crisis is widespread across agricultural America.

        If the drought wasn't bad enough, a worldwide glut of grain is depressing commodity prices for the second consecutive year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates net farm income will dip to $43.8 billion this year, about 4 percent below the inflation-adjusted average for the decade.

        “One of the reasons farmers are so upset this year is we started out looking at a break-even situation,” said Jim Bluck, a Ross County grain farmer who deadpanned that his last name “rhymes with bad luck.”

        Faced with low grain prices, some farmers have mulled cutting their corn now and feeding it to cattle. But to qualify for crop insurance, Mr. Bluck said, most will have to endure the rest of the season.

        There also is the potential that livestock could be poisoned by concentrated nitrates in the stunted plant leaves, remnants of chemicals injected into the soil during the spring to boost crop yields.

        Although the entire state has seen below-average rainfall, central and southern Ohio have been hit hardest.

        Between April 1 and Aug. 1, rainfall in south-central Ohio was more than 6 inches below normal, according to the Ohio Agriculture Statistics Office. The shortfall is 4.5 inches in Southwest Ohio, and 5.5 inches in the southeastern portion of the state.

        The Ohio River is at normal levels. But rivers in Ohio and Kentucky that flow into it are down substantially, as are creeks and other smaller tributaries some farmers use to water livestock.

        State Sen. Doug White, R-Manchester, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he'll push for $25 million to $50 million in state grants to assist farmers, similar to aid provided to flood and tornado victims in the past.

        While Mr. Taft said he wouldn't rule out providing state assistance, he tried to keep the focus Wednesday on pressuring the federal government for help.

        “Loans aren't going to help the little guy. Heck, I'm still paying off one from the '70s,” said Mr. White, who owns a farm in Adams County. “If we don't come up with some cash for these guys, some of them are just going to walk away from the farm.”

        Many families long ago started working other jobs to afford the agricultural way of life.

        Mr. Wolford also is a township trustee and drives a school bus. His wife, Betty, whose family has farmed their land since the 1800s, works as a regional director of the American Cancer Society.

        Their son, who Mr. Wolford said does most of the farming these days, also owns a trucking business, while his wife works at the local Ohio State University extension office.

        “We do what we can to get by,” Betty Wolford said. “I've always said God chooses special people to be farmers. But it's very difficult to come home from work every day and see the crops dying in the fields.”


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