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Dry Spell
Farmers are living through the fallout of a historic drought.

Photo by Sara Stathas

Wisely, Bob Barthel’s farm is irrigated. But this summer, as Wisconsin’s southern half baked in a drought that drew references to the 1936 Dust Bowl, here is what irrigation involved. Moving lines several times daily to keep thirsty crows from stealing water by pecking holes in the tubes. Feeding gallon after gallon of diesel fuel (700 by summer’s end) into the irrigation pump. Reducing a pond on the Mequon-area farm – home to apples, strawberries and pumpkins – to an oversized puddle.

“I basically ran out of water,” Barthel says. “We use a surface pond that’s about an acre, and by the second week of July, I had about 10 days of water left. Luckily, it started raining, and I was able to squeak by.” But “squeaking by” in 2012 meant a badly depleted crop, just as many fields in the southern reaches of the state lay barren or nearly so. His 19,000 apple trees, normally the scene of festive fall apple-picking, ran out of edible fruit by Halloween, meaning no more income for the farm until June, when the next crop of strawberries is harvested.

“I don’t need to go to the casino to gamble. This is a gamble,” says Barthel, a fourth-generation fruit farmer who took over the family stead in 1978. Slender and soft-spoken, he manages to look a little like an aging hippy while carrying on as a hardworking apple farmer, a feat made no easier by the drought, which made his 80-hour work weeks even longer, he says.

From all this work, he estimates that his farm produced about 10 percent of its normal apple crop this season. It’s relying on surprisingly strong strawberry and pumpkin crops to stay afloat, foods that would normally make up only about a quarter of his revenue.

“There are little bright spots,” he says, and those have been hard to come by. “I have very close friends in the vegetable business, and it has been ugly. Some families are suffering a Great Depression. I have a friend who called me and was almost suicidal.”

For most of the Midwest, the June-July timeframe was the third-driest in 118 years, says Mike Tannura of farm-centric analytical firm T-storm Weather. He notes that the month of July was the hottest in Wisconsin since 1936, when the state caught the edge of the Dust Bowl drought. The latest drought’s consequences have reached even the most cosmopolitan city-dwellers, who are paying higher prices at the grocery store as a result. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that prices on staples such as beef, milk and fresh vegetables would climb as much as 5 percent in 2013, due in large part to 2012’s withering summer.

Other meat prices are predicted to rise as well. Livestock farmers in southeastern Wisconsin were among those hit hardest by the drought. Margaret “Peg” Reedy, an agribusiness agent with the UW-Extension in Walworth County, says cattle operations probably suffered the greatest losses because feed became scarce and expensive.

“A lot of the corn, especially early-planted corn, was pollinating right at the time it was not only very dry but extremely hot, resulting in a big yield loss,” she says. “In some cases, on the lighter soils, there was nearly a total loss.”

Pete Meissner, a Sussex corn and soybean farmer who also operates cattle farms in Iowa and Minnesota, says feed costs “have gone up 80 to 90 percent because of the scarcity of the crops, and that’s where we are really taking the hit.”

Meissner owns Sussex’s Hickory Hill Farms along with his  brother, and they estimate that their soybean and corn crops are down about 50 percent from past years. As of late 2012, the 2,400-acre farm had produced a per-acre average of 22 bushels of soybeans and was on track for 90 bushels of corn per acre. The Meissners’ per-acre averages for 2011, a much wetter year: 42 bushels of soybeans and some 170 bushels of corn.

Options for farmers such as Meissner to supplement Midwestern-sourced feed are limited, and each is painfully expensive.

“They are faced with shipping in feed from other places, in some cases as far away as Montana and even Canada,” Reedy says. “Not only is it expensive because of demand, but the shipping costs are high, adding a huge cost to production. Farmers can either pay these increased costs, plant alternative annual crops for feed, or decrease the numbers of animals that they need to feed by selling them.”

What has saved Meissner, and countless other farmers like him, is crop insurance. Reedy estimates that about half of farmers who raise crops in Wisconsin have the policies, which cover about 60 to 70 percent of the income a farmer would have brought in with a normal harvest.

“This is the time you are really glad you have it,” Meissner says.

Dave Adams, who owns Adams Farm just outside of Lake Geneva, says he might have gone bankrupt in 2012 without crop insurance, even though it’s pricey. He pays about $40,000 a year to insure 1,000 acres of corn.

“Years like this, there is no other way,” he says.

For Adams, the drought brought back memories of a spottier dry spell that came and went in 1988, when Milwaukee went 55 consecutive days without rain, and his farm produced only about 30 bushels of corn per acre.

“In ’88, we took out loans, but there was no disaster program like there is now,” he says. “So we just went deeper in debt.”

This time, there’s more aid for farmers, in the form of low-cost financing. In July, after Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency for drought-affected counties, officials announced several assistance programs, including a Drought Relief Guarantee Program that provides a 90 percent guarantee on agricultural loans up to $15,000.

Adams expects to borrow a little and dip into his savings – healthy from the farm’s strong performance in 2010 and 2011 – to make it through the winter.

“It doesn’t keep me up at night, but it’s difficult,” he says. “It’s going to be a really tough year, and a lot of people might cry. … But maybe I’m just a little more optimistic than most.” 

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