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State Ag News
Sunday, 08 May 2011 15:11
By John Milburn - Associated Press
GARDEN CITY - The effects of Kansas' deepening drought seem to go on forever when seen from the air in a Kansas National Guard helicopter. Below, parched fields with crops that never spouted, burnt railroads and brown pastures stretch into the dust-tinged horizon. Many spots in southwest Kansas have had less than two-thirds of their normal rainfall in the past year.
Melvin Neufeld, a farmer-rancher from Ingalls and former House speaker, says the last drought he remembers being this bad was nearly 60 years ago. Even then it took storms of historic proportions to break the spell.
"We had 24 inches of snow at the end of March followed by rain after rain after rain," Neufeld said.
Gov. Sam Brownback toured the region on Wednesday, surveying the damage and talking to residents about the impact. He has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare 21 counties a disaster zone, which could trigger some assistance.
"Growing up on a farm and serving as the state's agriculture secretary, this is worse than previous droughts I've seen in a lifetime of agriculture," Brownback said. "It will take a great deal of time and rain to reverse the impact of this drought."
Neufeld said it would take several years for the soils to recover from the drought to return to plentiful harvests. A more immediate impact is the loss of bridges on a short line railroad that is causing problems in delivering grain and other goods to the region.
While the wheat crop is shot, some farmers may not even try another crop this spring, he said, extending the impact.
"It has a longer tail than most people realize because not only is it affecting the wheat crop, people are already turning in their spring seed," Neufeld said. "People aren't going to plant them because there's not enough subsoil moisture."
Legislative leaders say the drought's full effects won't be known for some time, but it is likely to be felt in state revenue collections.
"It's hard to really evaluate that. Obviously, you have a large part of western Kansas with a wheat crop that is either very poor or nonexistent," said Senate President Steve Morris, a Republican from the southwest city of Hugoton.
The drought is a factor as House and Senate negotiators try to finish the 2012 budget. There are signs the state economy is emerging from the recession, but a slump in the agriculture economy could blunt the recovery and force further cuts in state services.
A report for the week ending May 1 rated 45 percent of the Kansas wheat crop at poor or very poor condition. Only 2 percent of all wheat planted was rated excellent.
Many fear the drought will have an impact even after the rains finally return.
"We need to be mindful of the revenue stream, and the expense stream. There may be additional costs the state has to pay as a result of the downturn," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. "I think it's something we need to be thinking about."
Legislators are working with a thin margin in drafting the 2012 budget. The final product will total close to $14 billion and cut between 5 percent and 6 percent in overall spending compared to the 2011 budget. Those reductions include trimming state aid to public schools and other state programs.
The House is seeking a budget that has an ending balance of between $50 million and $100 million through June 30, 2012, based on the April 15 revenue forecast for the coming year. Senators haven't set a floor for an ending balance, saying they want to protect essential state services from being harmed.
Brownback proposed an ending balance of $7.5 million, but his plan, if adopted, would have left the state with a deficit in 2012 and forced additional cuts absent increased revenue collections. He's recently said that he was "embarrassed" he aimed so low with that target and now would like to see more of a cushion going forward given conditions.
"It's already affecting how farmers and ranchers are doing business and that in turn will quickly begin to impact local businesses and communities," Brownback said. "We have to keep this in mind when looking forward in our effort to grow the economy and keep state spending within its means."
Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, said even if the wheat crop is poor, farmers elsewhere in the state still have soybeans, corn and milo harvests ahead of them, with prices running higher than a year ago.
In addition, she said industries outside of agriculture, including aviation, are showing improvement.
Neufeld said it would be prudent for legislators to aim for at least a $50 million budget balance to prevent Brownback from having to make mid-year cuts. He thinks the drought is likely to affect not only agriculture producers, but the entire sector that depends on a successful harvest.
"There's no way there's going to be the volume of sales, so the price (per bushel) becomes irrelevant," Neufeld said.
Morris said crop insurance will help sustain farmers who lose their crops this year. The funds will be enough to pay the bills and prepare for the next harvest. However, that doesn't help businesses dependent on harvests, such as grain elevators.
There are more than 12,000 irrigation wells in Morris' Senate district, which will help sustain the crops, but still those plants need help from rains to reach their full potential. For the acres that aren't irrigated, there is little hope with just a few months before the wheat harvest begins.
"Overall, it's devastating to have those extremely dry conditions," Morris said.
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