No. 1 News Story of the Year: Detrimental, dogged ... and dry: Worst drought in decades damages crops, drains resources

Tuesday, January 1, 2013
The White River was recently barely a trickle at the U.S. Highway 62 West bridge, near Riverview Resort, west of Eureka Springs.

CARROLL COUNTY -- As with the rest of the state, Carroll County was hit with one of the worst droughts it has seen since the Dust Bowl era -- earning it the designation as the county's No. 1 News Story of the Year.

The drought actually began in the summer of 2011, despite heavy rains and floods in the spring. Northwest Arkansas cattle growers began selling off cattle they couldn't feed due to poor hay growth, while prices were good.

By September, the USDA had declared every county in Arkansas an agricultural natural disaster due to drought. Farmers were having to pay beyond-premium prices for good hay.

In March the Carroll County Farm Service Agency implemented the Emergency Conservation Program to help farmers with losses from the 2011 drought. The program provided cost-sharing for installing pipelines or other facilities for livestock watering or existing irrigation systems for orchards and vineyards, constructing and deepening wells and developing springs or seeps for livestock water and no-till annuals to provide interim forage stocks for livestock.

Although heavy rains caused some flooding in March, it was not enough to end the drought. In July Gov. Mike Beebe asked for disaster designation for 13 Arkansas counties.

Cattle growers again had to reduce the amount of cattle on their land.

Some growers appealed to their local fire stations to refill stock ponds, some brought portable tanks and purchased water from the Carroll-Boone Water District, and some received permission from the Corps of Engineers to draw water from Corps-owned lakes.

Carroll-Boone reported it had drawn a record number of gallons from Beaver Lake to supply its 25,000 water customers from Eureka Springs to Harrison. CBWD pulled 274 million gallons during its fiscal year, up 12 million gallons over the prior year.

With the ongoing drought, a big worry of county officials was the danger of wildfire, and Carroll County Judge Sam Barr declared a county-wide fire ban for most of the year, even with occasional rains.

Fears of wildfire prompted cities across the region to cancel their Fourth of July fireworks displays altogether, disappointing local residents who also were not allowed to discharge their own fireworks.

Those fears proved true when on July 4 a wildfire erupted and raged for two days in southeastern Carroll County, scorching at least 250 acres of forest and farmland. In late July, another wildfire, in southern Carroll County, burned 7.5 acres before it was extinguished.

Although in mid-July some areas in the county received between 2 and 4 inches of rain, it wasn't enough to affect the county's drought status, which was D3, or "extreme," the next to the highest drought level.

The National Weather Service said the county year-to-date had 10 to 15 inches of rain, which was 8 to 12 inches below normal.

Although some were cheered by an occasional hard rain, District 6 Arkansas Forestry Commission Ranger Darrell Bohannon said that doesn't help, as it just runs off.

"We need a good 30-day slow rain," he said -- the kind of rain that soaks into the ground.

Again, in 2012, Carroll County was designated a natural disaster area, which allowed farmers and ranchers to get financial assistance. Farmers could apply for assistance from the Farm Service Agency, again for FSA's Emergency Conservation Program, which would provide 90 percent of the cost of eligible projects for limited resource producers and 75 percent for other producers.

The assistance also included FSA Emergency Loans, which provide funding to replace or restore property, pay production costs and essential living expenses, reorganize farming operations or refinance certain debts.

Other assistance came in the form of the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, with priority given to those located in an "exceptional" classified drought area.

The "exceptional" drought had reached 53 percent of the state in August, and all of Carroll County was in that class, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map.

Statewide, 83 percent of pastures were rated as poor or very poor by the National Agricultural Statistic Service, and an estimated 90 percent of the tree, shrub and pasture plantings through EQIP were expected to be a "complete failure" throughout the state, said federal sources.

The governor also set aside $2 million statewide for assistance to ranchers.

In Carroll County, cattle farmers were selling off whole herds as the "triple whammy" of high temperatures, lack of hay supplies to fall back on and rising feed prices took their toll, said Scott Fancher, county FSA director.

He said many farmers began feeding their cattle 100 percent chicken waste, as there was little to no forage.

More than 200 farmers had signed up for financial assistance by August, and in October, the county FSA office received $610,625 for the ECP, to be used for emergency livestock watering facilities.

In November, the county FSA office was authorized to make Noninsured Assistance Program payments for grazing losses. Those who had insured their acres would get $36.76 per acre.

Fancher's office issued $1.5 million in early November and expected to release a little more than $2.4 million altogether, based on 65,290 acres of insured grazing land in the county.

Kelly Bolinger, who handles loans at the FSA office, said the office has concentrated on giving operating loans at a lower interest rather than emergency loans, to help those who might not qualify for emergency loans.

"Another thing we've been doing is restructuring loans, so if a farmer had a payment due in November, we could restructure the loan to delay the payment so they could use that money to buy feed," she said.

Across the state, Arkansas cattle farmers sustained an estimated $128 million in losses from this year's drought.

Some farmers in the state who had been comparing the drought the one experienced in 1980 and in 1954 began comparing this drought to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.

"If not for the irrigation implemented since 1980, the picture would be much worse," said Brent Griffin, Prairie County Extension staff chairman.

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