Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Drought Creates Fear, Apprehension In West, Great Plains

July 17, 2006

A dry spring. A hot June and even hotter July. Wildfires burn in the California, Montana and Wyoming. Pastures dry up. Feed is in short supply. The crops suffer and wilt. Corn is at a critical reproductive stage. Heat and lack of moisture during a prolonged heat wave lead to significant loss of yield. Hay is at a premium. Cow herds have to be reduced.

The western Great Plains, already economically marginal, feels it the worst. Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, the western and central Dakotas. All except Kansas and the main Corn Belt states of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. The drought creeps toward them.

What is it like to go through a drought when your very livelihood depends on moisture?

You wait. You worry. You feel helpless. You feel danger with each passing day. What is going to happen next? You hunger for information. Where is it raining? Who got what? Now you have to rely on thunderstorms to bring the needed moisture. You feel vulnerable. You are scared.

You can feel it as you walk out the door. You see it as the land and livestock suffer. You hear it in the local cafe. You feel it in your gut. Life is slipping out of your control. Nothing works in a drought. Concentration is broken. Little things set you off.

Your security is being ripped away. Depending on who you are, it may not be a matter of failed expectations. It may mean survival.

Anxiety mounts steadily until the day arrives when rain will no longer do any good.

Shock and disbelief take over. Despite warning signs, you kept your hope. You weren't prepared. Now fear hits, like a sledgehammer. You go to the fields anyway. Just to keep busy. And to save something. It doesn't matter that it won't amount to a hill of beans. Emotions you are not used to feeling start to take over.

Drought puts you in a position of making quick, high-risk decisions. Decisions you'll have to live with. You are frustrated that you have to make them at all. The chips are down and the waiting begins.

Not everyone is being hurt. Some farmers and ranchers are well positioned to benefit. Some have had timely rains. In some states, drought is interspersed with areas of ideal conditions and areas with too much moisture. Some have grain in storage or adequate supplies of feed. They are positioned to take advantage of the prices that are starting to rise. Irrigators finally have a year where their investment pays off. For many farmers, the Conservation Reserve Program offers protection.

In places where drought is widespread, the drought brings people together. It is a disaster they all share. It is OK to talk about it. Somehow it feels better when others are in the same boat. Not everyone will be affected equally. In a few months this openness will disappear. In areas where rains are spotty, those being hurt the worst feel, "Why me? I worked as hard as anybody." They feel singled out. Their faith is challenged.

The drought is hard to talk about when you don't know how others are being affected. Drought is visible; debt is invisible. It's hard to rejoice for others when your own farm or ranch is going down the drain. The pain is kept inside. Those whose operations have been spared don't know what to say either. They feel relief and euphoria. Inwardly, they are happy, not sad.

On the edge. Some farmers and ranchers don't know how worried to be. Further rains can still make a difference. There will be a crop. Yields will be known at harvest. Half a crop may be as good as a whole crop when rising prices are calculated.

For some operators who are recovering from past financial pressures, this was going to be their year to heal up. Finally. This year was going to be a time to reduce debt to manageable proportions. The drought puts them right back in the soup.

The threat is next door. The threat of drought is real but still hasn’t made an impact. You still might escape. In the back of your mind, you worry about next year. Will there be a moisture recharge this winter and next spring? A second year of drought would be devastating. This worry will gnaw away until the drought is broken.

End of the line. Some of you may be feeling "We don't need this now." The drought brought about the worst of all possible worlds - a catastrophe on top of "chronic crisis." The struggle to stay afloat the past few years has already hammered people and drained them of their financial and emotional reserves.

How many times is the rug going to be jerked? Do you get up again? For what? Hope and energy have been sapped. The aftermath of drought includes depression, apathy, disillusionment, panic and emotional "numbness".

For those who do go belly up, the drought may give some farmers a face-saving way of finally letting go. "The weather got us." They don't have to carry the extra blame baggage of, "It was my fault." On the inside they feel terrible. The losses they feel are great. Like so many former farmers that have gone before them, they are starting a journey that will ultimately bring them the happiness they deserve.