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Seasoned farmers can take drought in stride

Is today's farmer at the mercy of the weather? After over a month of extensive national news coverage of crop and livestock losses from extreme heat and drought, it seems that US farmers are bound to suffer both in the short and long term. But not all farmers see the weather and its effects so simply.

A large number of farmers are hurting -- and will hurt more. Too many have been wrung dry by a month of rainless 100-degree-plus weather affecting the major agricultural areas from Texas to the Dakotas at a crucial stage in the growing season.

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Certainly the drought-hit farmers interviewed agreed that their crop and livestock need "two or three inches of good, cool rain."

Yet, strangely enough to city folk, farmers explain that weather is one of the more predictable and manageable parts of farming.

Patrick Batts, an American Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, said, "One thing we know in agriculture is we have never had three record crops in a row -- and we have just had two years in a row of record crops."

Cattle rancher Clinton Huntington in the Flint Hills near Eureka, Kan., is always ready for heat and drought -- which may explain why his family has been in farming since his great-grandfather settled here in 1872.

Since that time the Huntingtons have seen many farmers come and go. Those boom-and-bust cycles seemed to be part of what weathermen identify as a 20-year drought cycle. The wholesale migrations into the Plains states in the 1880s ended abruptly with the 1887 dry spell. Drought and the disappearance of less-hardy farmers came again in the 1910s, the 1930s, and the 1950s.

Drought years have been hard on the Huntingtons, too. But Clinton Huntington sees dry years such as 1980 as helpful -- because each drought "peels off" more of the marginal operators. He says he and his wife run a successful cattle grazing operation because "we regulate ourselves, we take half the grass and leave half the grass."

Mr. Huntington explained that with careful management he can raise his cattle on the native prairie grass and pond water even during the driest years. The Huntington keep in business because they truly are "husbandmen" -- managing their holdings economically, taking the long-term view, preparing for wet and dry years.

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A South Dakota farmer, John Sieh of Groton, agrees."It has never been the droughts that have hurt us farmers, it has been prices. We can always survive the droughts."

What is needed, says Michael Held, a South Dakota Farm Bureau official, is ter prices for our products in the good years, so farmers themselves can put away money in a nest egg for hard times like this year."

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