IMAGE: FARMER IN SOYBEAN FIELD
Charlie Riedel  /  AP
Soybean farmer Dan Engler of Portis, Kan., works a second job because a prolonged drought has cut into his farm income.
updated 10/5/2006 9:42:54 AM ET 2006-10-05T13:42:54

Charlie Griffin gets two or three calls daily from farmers struggling with bills they cannot pay.

“Often the first thing out of someone’s mouth is, ’I don’t know where to turn,”’ said Griffin, director of the Kansas Rural Family Help Line.

Widespread drought is taking a psychological, as well as financial, toll on American farmers and ranchers.

The summer of 2006 was the second warmest in the continental U.S. since records began in 1895, according to the NOAA National Climatic Data Center. Despite some rainfall last month in parts of the country, moderate to extreme drought conditions continue in about 40 percent of the country.

It’s difficult to quantify how deeply the drought is affecting Kansas farmers. While the number of calls to the help line is running about the same as in past years, Griffin said, the drought has risen to the top of the average farmer’s list of worries.

Calls to the help line typically increase as winter approaches and farmers start going over their account books.

“That is the time when a lot of farmers go through some seasonal depression, and some of them could benefit from assistance from a mental health professional,” Griffin said.

Cattle rancher Barrett Broadie said he’s fortunate to have an off-farm job working for a cattle auction company to help pay bills and make his land payment.

“For a lot of these families, there is nothing they can do,” he said. “Psychologically, that is as tough on them as anything.”

'Stretched all we can'
Broadie, 36, keeps about 220 cows year-round and usually runs another 400 or more head on wheat pasture every winter. Last year, the drought-stressed pastures were so poor he could only run 200 head on pasture, cutting his profits in half.

“It makes it hard to make payments,” he said.

In north Kansas, grain grower Dan Engler struggles with crops decimated by drought over the past seven years.

His off-farm job as an insurance crop adjuster helps, but his pickup truck has 217,000 miles on it and much of his farm equipment is aging. He laid off his hired hand, and depends more on his children and grandparents as unpaid farm labor. To cut insurance costs, he raised the deductible on their automobile, farm and health care policies.

“We have stretched all we can. There is really not much else that we can stretch,” he said.

Engler, 42, farms several thousand acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and sorghum. Higher prices for fuel and fertilizer have driven his operational costs up an additional $35,000 this year, he said.

“How can you in a drought situation — when you don’t have a crop — produce that $35,000?” Engler asked.

He said seven young farmers he knows quit farming since he came to Kansas and took over his wife’s farm in 1998.

Forecast a bit better
Some relief may be in the offing in some areas. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center has forecast some improvement across the Great Plains through December. The drought may also ease somewhat in the South and Southeast.

Whether the areas will get enough moisture to aid crops is uncertain.

Farm lobbyists continue to ask Congress for drought disaster assistance. They recently told members of the Senate and House agriculture committees that farmers are facing a two-prong disaster: the drought and high fuel and fertilizer prices.

“I think there is a good chance that Congress might pass a disaster package — the question is when that will occur,” said Dusti Fritz of the Kansas Wheat Commission. “Our message to congressmen was that we need it now and we need it before the October recess. But the message we heard back was that it was unlikely to happen that quickly.”

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