Tuesday, April 09, 2002

Parched soil dries businesses

Losses mount in Montana

By Becky Bohrer
The Associated Press

        HAVRE, Mont. — Mike Williams hasn't sold a $100,000 farm tractor or combine in three years; his implement dealership used to sell between four and nine a year. It's been more than a year and a half since he's even taken home a paycheck.

        Now living off his savings, Mr. Williams has whittled his inventory, laid off workers and asked himself, at the end of a long day, if he'd be better off just walking away.

        “Some days I look out the window and wonder, "Is it worth it?'” he said. “I used to love coming to work.”

        It's become a matter of survival for small-business owners like Mr. Williams and countless others across drought-stricken north-central Montana. The farmers and ranchers who once loyally bought cars, combines and chemicals now are holding tight to what money they have — or seeking better deals in bigger cities.

        Implement and feed dealers and the farmers they support are feeling the effects of four years of drought and a reeling agricultural economy. And another drought year is taking shape.

        Recent snowstorms have helped some but promise no immediate end to dry conditions. Rivers and reservoirs hold less water than normal, wells and springs have gone dry, mountain snowpack is lagging, and dry Montana soil is being blown away.

        The problem extends across much of the West, hitting Colorado, Wyoming, portions of Utah, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma and parts of western Texas. Drought also is affecting the East Coast, from Maine to Georgia.

        In Montana, as farmers survey wheat fields of dust and ranchers walk through pastures grazed to the nubs, difficult choices are being made. Some have sold out, purging cattle herds built up over genera tions. Others are trying to diversify, a risky move rich with debt. Still others are preparing to head for the fields, aiming for another year in business and praying for rain in a state just declared a drought disaster area once again.

        “I can hang on for a while. The question is, do I want to?” asked 37-year-old wheat farmer Pat Dailey of Chester. “I have friends who have quit, and they're happier than ever.”

        In the region, there are vacant storefronts, quiet Main Streets, seemingly constant chatter about rain — or at least, the hope of rain. “It's so easy to be negative,” said Mr. Williams, the Havre implement dealer. “You have to find something positive or you're going to go nuts.”

        Leaders are seeking ways to diversify their towns' agriculture- driven economies.

        “The problem here is, we've lived on agriculture so long, the way the farmers and ranchers go is the way the city goes. And that's not good right now,” Havre Mayor Bob Rice said.

        About 80 percent of Fort Benton's businesses are agriculture related. The town and Chouteau County watched its last implement dealer close last spring, leaving farmers and ranchers to drive 40 to 100 miles for parts or equipment. Chester, across the county line, lost its dealer last fall.

        Roger Axtman, whose family ran Axtman Farm Equipment Inc., at Fort Benton, said the business lost about 60 percent of its customer base over five years.

        “We weren't taking home any wages,” said Mr. Axtman, who now works at a real estate agency.


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- Parched soil dries businesses