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July 23, 2012

Continuing drought pushes 'disaster' numbers up

INDIANAPOLIS — The number of Indiana counties declared disaster areas due to the drought is at 50 and counting.

Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman said Monday that she expects the U.S. Department of Agriculture to boost that number soon, clearing the way for more farmers hit hard by the record dry conditions to qualify for federal assistance.

That means more than half of Indiana is now in that “disaster” zone, with another one-third considered close enough to qualify for some federal help.

Skillman said the USDA is working to streamline the process for getting financial assistance to Indiana farmers already feeling the economic impact of a crop-killing drought that’s gripping the nation’s Corn Belt.

Skillman said many of Indiana’s farmers, even those with crop insurance, are in “survival mode.”

The help can’t come soon enough for farmers like Mike Buis, who has watched his 3,200 acres of corn on his Cloverdale farm wither under the hot, dry conditions.

Buis thinks he’ll be lucky to get 30 bushels of corn per acre out of his fields this summer; usually he gets about 150 bushels per acre.

“It’s bad,” Buis said. “We haven’t had a good rain since here since early May. We keep hoping and praying. But you can’t beat Mother Nature.”

At Monday’s press conference, Skillman described Indiana as the “epicenter” of a drought now being compared to the Dust Bowl drought years of the 1930s.

Buis would like to think it’s not that bad, but he’s having his doubts. Last week, The Guardian newspaper in London, England, dispatched a reporter to his farm for a story on the massive crop failures caused by the drought throughout the Midwest.

The reporter called it the “worst drought in a generation,” a description that Buis, who’s been farming for 49 years, fears may be an understatement.

“Before this drought is over, everybody is going to be affected,” Buis said. “I mean everybody.”

Skillman and others concur. More than 1,330 counties across the U.S., about one-third of the nation, are now officially in a drought-disaster zone.

Farmers are suffering but their pain is also translating into higher prices that will show up in grocery stores, from now until next year. Corn prices have already risen about 40 percent since mid-June; soybean prices are up by about 25 percent.

Indiana Farm Bureau Don Villwock said farmers in Indiana are selling their livestock at a record pace, concerned about the cost feeding them.

Villwock said some food prices, including beef and pork, will likely go down temporarily, but will climb soon.

An immediate concern of Villwock’s: Indiana food pantries are running low on the locally grown fruits and vegetables donated by farmers.

It’s still too early to know exactly how much damage is being done to the agriculture industry by the drought and the accompanying relentless heat, said Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt.

‘It will be in the millions and millions of dollars,’ Hurt said.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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