A version of this column previously published in the Buffalo Reflex in 2012. What a difference seven years makes.
Another week of blistering, 100-plus heat and no rain to slake the thirst of our Ozarks’ parched earth — it’s miserable weather for most of us, but worse for that tiny but critical percentage who feed us.
Farmers are watching lifetimes of work burn like toast under the searing sun and their futures be carried away in the hot wind.
Drought. Like an insidious plague, it creeps day after day, devouring fields and woodlands as surely as the massive wildfires that swept through Colorado, but without the dramatic smoke or flames. As surely as a wildfire, it devours farm homes and families along with their herds and fields.
Dairy farmers, with milk checks insufficient to even pay their daily feed costs, are hit particularly hard. It was a losing proposition even before their pastures turned to wisps of straw clumped in the dust. If they have hay to feed, it’s forage they were counting on to get them through the winter. If they have to buy hay, they’re lucky to find it, and most likely selling off cows — their only sustaining source of income if milk prices rebound — to be able to buy it.
It’s little different for beef producers, forced to sell calves lighter than normal and trim their cow herds just to stay in business. For some producers — dairy or beef — cutting back just means culling. For others it means letting go of genetic foundations they’ve been years building.
“Hang in there,” we say. “It’ll rain here sooner or later.” Easy to say, but just more hot air. “Later” may not be soon enough, and just “here” won’t be broad enough. Drought across the corn belt has already pushed corn prices past $8 a bushel, and by most accounts the crop in the field is too far gone to produce more than half what it should. That’s corn for Missouri livestock of all types.
Most of us can only sympathize with farmers. If we don’t depend directly on livestock or crops for our family income, we can only understand in our heads, not our gut. Sure, farming is a business; but, it’s also a way of life. It’s home, it’s family and most everything else we hold dear.
Drought rips us apart, tears us away from what we love, demoralizes us because we have so little control over its ravages.
It’s easy for a non-farm observer to step back and look at drought in the abstract — to make it simply academic. The numbers on the news tell the story — high temperature, days without rain, cattle and grain prices. Then we click over to Wheel of Fortune.
It’s not so easy, though, to listen to the voice of a dairyman crack as he talks about the only life he’s known drying up and blowing away. Drought exacts a terrible toll on human life, not just plant and animal.
I walk across my own small pasture, kicking up dust between ragged stools of grass. I cross a neighbor's pasture on grass as pale and thin as broom straw.
I thank God my daily bread doesn’t depend on that parched earth, but know it truly does.
Like so many others whose hearts, if not their feet, remain on the farm, I pray that we may soon see relief.
Farmers need help, some more than others. The government can’t help. We can’t help.
It’s all in the Rainmaker’s hands.
Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this column previously published in the Buffalo Reflex. ©️ James E. Hamilton 2019.