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House Passes $383M Drought-Aid Bill

House Passes $383M Drought-Aid Bill Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images

As nation experiences biggest drought since 1956.

The House passed a $383 million drought-aid package for livestock producers and fruit farmers by a 223–197 vote. The GOP decided to move forward with the measure once it became apparent that longer-term legislation, like a planned $500 million five-year farm bill would fail. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “This bill is just another indication of the Republicans doing something that doesn’t meet the needs of our economy.” Meanwhile, the ongoing drought has spread. Over a fifth of the contiguous U.S. is now in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. It is also the biggest drought since 1956, with more than three fifths of the contiguous U.S. experiencing moderate drought.

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OKLAHOMA

One for the Road

Humor and hardship go hand in hand in Erick, pop. 1,052, hometown of country great Roger Miller. But even though it looks like a dying town from afar, Erick has an insistent pulse. Malcolm Jones reports.

Driving west on I-40 in the middle of the afternoon, I saw a sign for Erick, Okla., a few miles shy of the Texas line. The countryside in that part of the world has been so gnawed to the bone by drought for two years running that there’s very little about its bleached landscape to make you want to linger. But Erick rang a distant bell. Sure enough, just before the exit ramp, there was a road sign announcing Erick as the hometown of Roger Miller. As soon as I saw that, I yanked the steering wheel to the right.

Erick, Okla

Humor and hardship go hand in hand in Erick, pop. 1,052, hometown of country great Roger Miller. (Malcolm Jones)

Erick is four miles south of the interstate, and they have a blinking stoplight in the middle of town to let you know you’ve arrived. Otherwise you could scoot right through in the time it takes to read this sentence and be none the wiser. There were people there once. You can tell this because there are still buildings lining the two main drags that meet at that stoplight, but most of the stores and office buildings are boarded up or closed. According to the last census, the town has 1,052 citizens, but the majority must have been on vacation when I came through. Most small towns in America are smaller than they once were, but Erick takes that to an extreme.

Roger Miller was born in Fort Worth in 1936, but his father died when he was a year old, and his mother parceled her three sons out to relatives. Miller grew up with his aunt and uncle on a farm outside of Erick, a place he joked about all his life. “It was so dull you could watch the colors run,” he once said. “We were so poor, words were our only toys.”

In high school Miller filled out a “Pupil Information Sheet.” Under “Telephone,” he wrote, “No telephone,” and in answer to the question “What would you like to do when you finish high school?” he wrote, “I would like to have my own band and play over the radio.” He more than got his wish.

Miller had three No. 1 singles, including his most famous song, “King of the Road,” which alone netted him five of his 11 Grammys. He also won a Tony for best score for Big River, his musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. An established Nashville songwriter before his own performing career took off in the mid-1960s, he wrote hits for artists as disparate as George Jones and Jim Reeves. But no one sang a Miller lyric like the man who wrote it, and in most cases you had to hear him sing the words to truly appreciate how rhythmically clever they were.

Without the music, it’s very hard to hear how he parses this out so beautifully against the beat in “Engine Engine Number Nine,” but consider this lyric: “Old brown suitcase that she carried/ I’ve looked for it everywhere/ It just ain’t here among the rest/ And I’m a little upset, yes.” And has anyone ever written a better song title than “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me”?

The laughs come hard in Roger Miller songs. “Dang Me (They Ought to Take a Rope and Hang Me)” is, on first or fifth listen, just an upbeat, goofy nonsense song, but consider that he wrote this song after divorcing his first wife, with whom he had a child, and you’ll get a little shiver when you hear, “Out all night and running wild/ Woman sittin’ home with a month old child.” A little later we get the lines, “Spent the groceries and half the rent/ I lack 14 dollars of having 27 cents,” which manages to be both horrifying and hilarious at the same time.

Drought

Will Food Prices Jump?

This summer's punishing heat wave could wreak havoc on grocery bills. Matthew Zeitlin on which product prices might be affected the most.

With a giant swathe of the nation’s prime agricultural land affected by drought, the federal government and private forecasters have been projecting a significant drop in corn and soybean production—and a jump in food prices. Until this week’s report on worldwide supplies of agriculture commodities from the Department of Agriculture, however, there have not been any projections based on actual surveys of the affected crop. Today’s numbers, in line with expectations, foresee a giant drop in the amount of corn and soybean that will be harvested, and basically ensure a jump in prices across the wide range of food products that use soy and corn.

FOOD INFLATION

U.S. consumers may pay 3 percent to 4 percent more for food next year, as the effects of the country's worst drought since the 1950s work their way onto supermarket shelves, the Department of Agriculture said in its first forecast for 2013. (Scott Eells / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The forecast for corn yield, the bushels of corn harvested per acre of planted, fell to 123.4, a drop from last month’s forecast of 146 bushels per acre. The continued slide in projected yields is particularly sharp considering that this corn crop was the biggest in more than 70 years. The yield is projected to be the lowest since 1995. The big drop in corn production means, in the words of the report, a “sharply higher price outlook” for corn. The projected price for corn soared to $7.50-to-$8.90 per bushel; last month’s projections were $5.40-to-$6.40 a bushel.

The report told a similar story for soybeans, which are used primarily to make food oils, biodiesel, and livestock feed. According to their first survey of this year’s crop, the report found that the projected yield dropped to 36.1 bushels per acre, 4.4 bushels from the previous projection and 5.4 bushels below last year’s actual yield. The total stock of soybeans dropped to a nine-year low, a 12 percent drop from July’s projected figures. The report projected soybean prices to be between $15 and $17 a bushel, up $2.

According to the USDA, just under 90 percent of the corn and soybean crops are in drought areas and around 50 percent of the corn crop is rated “poor” or “very poor,” along with 39 percent of the soybean crop. The decreased yield means that the supply of corn and soy—and the retail food products that use corn and soy—must be rationed by the market.

But what does this mean for food prices? There is not any new federal government data until the end of this month, but “higher corn, wheat, and soybean prices will all get transmitted to consumers over the next several months,” says USDA Chief Economist Joseph Glauber. The first increases are expected to be in vegetable oil, while beef, pork, and poultry—all of which use corn and soy for feed—will take longer. In fact, in the short term, the meat market might be flooded as ranchers and producers bring their animals to market because feeding them has gotten—and will get—too expensive.

In fact, slaughters of female pigs shot up to an eight month high due to high feed costs. The USDA projects temporarily higher beef supplies as dairy cows are slaughtered because of high costs, but Glauber cautions that in the long term, prices for meat will go up. Prices for packaged foods that use corn, like corn meal and cereal, are projected by the USDA to start reflecting higher prices in 10 to 12 months.

The August numbers are considered to be more accurate and useful than previous months’ crops projections because they are based on a combination of USDA surveys of actual crops—which includes surveyors literally counting the number of ears on corn stalks as well as weighing the grain. They then supplement this data by asking farmers what they expect their crop yields to be. By contrast, the previous reports make their projections based on the condition of the crop, not actual measurements, according to Glauber.

Second Summer of Hell

Toughing It Out in Texas

Last year panhandle ranchers Phillip and Doris Smith suffered through the worst one-year drought in Texas history. A year later, they tell Malcolm Jones, it’s only gotten worse.

One hot, cloudless day in July 2011, Phillip and Doris Smith sat in the living room of their ranch house on the high plains of the Texas panhandle and tried without much success to see into the future.

texas-drought-7

Phillip Smith, owner of the Sunshine Ranch in Panhandle, Texas. Smith, who is a dryland farmer and relies solely on rain for watering, said his crop died because of the region's drought conditions. (Roberto Rodriguez for The Daily Beast)

For 10 miserable months they had endured a searing drought that still gripped almost all of Texas and showed no sign of abating. Cattle ranchers and wheat farmers, the Smiths could do nothing but watch helplessly as their fields and pastures scorched and cracked while the months crawled by with no rain. It was easy to see where wildfires had ripped across the high plains weeks earlier, because those fields were still black. And now there was nothing left to feed the cattle.

“I’ve sold cows,” Phillip said. “We know we’re going to sell more cows. We just don’t know when we’re going to bite the bullet.” He shook his head. “It’s just where we don’t know what we’re going to do.

“We have no sub-moisture at all. I can take you out there and dig a posthole six foot down and you won’t find any water. That’s how dry we are. I can show you cracks in that wheat field that are this wide,” he says, holding his hands about five inches apart.

“Until it rains, we’re out of business right here.”

The Smiths are both 73 years old. They have ranched and farmed all their lives, and while the thought of selling out and leaving has crossed their minds, it hasn’t lingered.

To a stranger listening to a story that sounded like another Plagues of Egypt, their doggedness seemed inexplicable. So many others had drifted away, part of that inexorable exodus off the land that had been going on for more than a century. In 1900, 25 percent of the American population worked on the farm. Today it’s around 2 percent.

Global Warming

New York’s Climate Hub

The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Research sits anonymously above a ‘Seinfeld’ landmark, doing ground-breaking work on climate change, including a study released this week that links human activity to recent U.S. wildfires and tornadoes.

Anybody who watched Seinfeld would recognize Tom’s Restaurant in upper Manhattan as one of the hit show’s landmarks. Almost nobody knows that during all the time Seinfeld was aired, and to this very day, the scientists of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies led by Dr. James Hansen, were laboring directly upstairs from Tom’s, pursuing what may prove to be one of the most important investigations of our time.

SEINFELD

A crowd gathers in front of Tom's Restaurant in New York in anticipation of the final episode of "Seinfeld" Thursday, May 14, 1998. On the show, Tom's is known as Monk's, the Upper West Side gathering place for Jerry and his friends that was featured in many episodes. (Ed Betz / AP Photo)

Jerry Seinfeld’s TV comedy was famously called a show about nothing, yet millions still watch the reruns 14 years after its final episode. Hansen’s continuing work is about something as important as global warming, but the public barely seemed to notice the new study he and his co-author released this week regarding the recent extremes in temperature.

Never mind that the study, “Perception of Climate Change,” links global warming—and therefore human activity—to the record-breaking droughts and wildfires of late, along with the unusually intense thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Never mind that global warming appears to be triggering a kind of global derangement.

Forests burn, crops die, roads buckle, trees topple, power grids strain. One nuclear power plant nearly shut down because its cooling water is too hot to cool. Another discovers that the river level is falling to where there will be no water. Greenland’s ice melts at more than twice the usual rate, causing an iceberg the size of Manhattan to break off and drift into the sea.

And when an eminent scientist presents a convincing case that we are complicit in it all, we pay less attention than to a Seinfeld episode that has aired so many times that fans can speak the lines along with the characters.

The latest paper from the 71-year-old Hansen was presented Monday in a conference room at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, two blocks up Broadway from the little known Goddard Center and the world-famous Tom’s. Some press outlets that might have paid more attention were busy covering the latest mass shooting, this one by a white supremacist in a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee.

A Harvest of Woe

South Dakota Withers in the Drought

High heat and no rain forces farmers and ranchers in South Dakota, like others across the Midwest, to abandon dying crops and cull their herds, writes Barbie Latza Nadeau.

A fine cloud of dust blows like brown snow across an unmarked gravel road near Stickney, S.D. The dust catches in the throat like smoke, and the tiny glasslike shards sting the eyes. However hard it is for humans, who can easily find shelter to escape the mini dust cyclones, its much worse on the animals. “It’s hard on the livestock,” says Dale Larsch, 39, who has 160 head of cattle and around 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, and pasture land. “We’ve had a lot of sickness from the dust and insects, from pinkeye to pneumonia.”

Drought Agriculture Disaster Michigan

Drought-damaged corn is seen in July near Lawrence, Mich. (Robert Ray / AP Photo)

Larsch, like most farmers and ranchers in the Midwest affected by the worsening drought of 2012, is making contingency plans to get through one of the worst years in recent memory. He grew up on a farm and can’t remember a drought worse than this one. He won’t be harvesting most of his corn to sell this year. Instead, he has already cut much of it for silage to feed his cattle through the winter. But it won’t be enough. “I’ll have to sell a few head—maybe 15 percent—because I won’t be able to feed them,” he told The Daily Beast. “But we won’t get anywhere near the price they are worth.”

A few miles down the road, Tyler Gerlach, 28, and his brother LaRon, 40, who took over their uncle’s farm about six years ago, are facing a similar plight with their grain crops. They farm about 3,000 acres, divided into corn, winter wheat, and soybeans. Rows and rows of their corn that should be more than six feet tall and lush are nothing more than brown leaves fluttering in the dry wind. Tyler opens an ear of corn to show the stunted growth. There are only a few pale kernels where golden corn should be. “There’s no grain here,” he says. “We’ll have to decide whether or not it is worth the price of the fuel to even run the combine through this.”

Droughts have always been part of farming and ranching in the hardest-hit areas of the Midwest. But this year is particularly bad because it is so widespread, says Larsch. Usually when one part of the agricultural heartland is affected, producers from other areas can fill in the vacuum. But with more than half of the United States suffering extreme drought conditions, there simply won’t be enough corn, grain, and livestock to feed the rest of the nation. Still, many of the farmers affected by the drought resent that they are already being blamed for higher food prices in the rest of the country. It’s a math equation that doesn’t make much sense, especially on grain-based foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that only about 10 percent of individual products like bread are affected by the cost of grain. The rest is attributed to processing, packaging, and transportation.

“I’m not sure I get the math,” says Gerlach. “Some of the food prices should not be affected by this drought. Someone along the line is taking advantage of the bad news and making a profit on this drought.”

Midwest Drought

Clockwise from top left: AP; Getty; Getty; AP

But some prices will justifiably be affected. When farmers like Larsch can’t feed their cattle, they cull their herds, which could initially cause a drop in beef prices in the supermarkets, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. But within a few months, prices will likely spike because of shortages. If farmers aren’t raising as many cattle, hogs, or poultry, there won’t be as much supply in stores.   

Cause and Effect

What's Causing Severe Weather?

In a new book, Global Weirdness, scientists and journalists ask fundamental questions about climate change. Here they answer the question of whether droughts, heat waves, and other extreme weather are due to global warming.

Based on their understanding of how the climate system works, scientists expect that a warming Earth should see more and more episodes of weather extremes such as droughts, floods, heat waves and severe storms. The reason for more heat waves is pretty obvious. If you define a heat wave as an extended stretch of days when the temperature is well above what we now think of as normal in a month when temperatures are already high (July and August in the U.S., for example), then a generally warmer world will have more stretches like this.

Drought

Corn plants struggle to survive in a drought-stricken Indiana. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

With droughts and floods, the reason may be less obvious. But in a warmer world, more water evaporates from the oceans and other bodies of water, and also from the soil. So the land will tend to be drier—but when it does rain or snow, there’s more water vapor stored up in the atmosphere, so precipitation should be heavier. That could lead in turn to a higher risk of flooding. Atmospheric scientists calculate that the warming over the 20th century should have put about 5% more water vapor into the atmosphere today, on average, that there was in 1900.

Even so, it’s difficult to prove definitively that extreme weather events have increased, unless we’re talking about averages over the entire globe, or at least over very large regions. That’s because the most extreme events—the worst storms, droughts and floods—tend to come less often than ordinary events. Climate and weather scientists talk about “100-year floods,” for example, meaning a flood so big it should happen s about once in every 100 years (or 10 times in a thousand years), on average, in a particular location.

But that’s only an average, so if you have two such floods in a 100-year period, does that mean the risk has doubled, or maybe that you are now “ok”safe for the next 200 years? Or is it just a statistical fluke, similar to flipping a coin and getting two heads in a row just by chance? It can be hard to tell. It’s even harder when you don’t have good measurements over the past century in all parts of the world, and when different parts of the world respond to climate change in their own ways.

Even today, with much better monitoring, it’s a challenge for scientists to gather enough information to draw firm conclusions about long-term trends over large regions. It’s more difficult still to say anything concrete about the role of climate change in single events. No single event, such as the deadly heat wave that hit Europe in 2003 or the 2010 floods in Pakistan or heat and wildfires in Russia can be definitely blamed on climate change: we think that climate change has made events like these more likely, but they could have happened anyway.

For single events like these, the best scientists can do is calculate whether climate change has tipped the odds in favor of such events happening—whether the coin you’re flipping has become slightly loaded in favor of tails, for example. A study published in 2005 showed just that kind of loading for the European heat wave of 2003.

As for general trends, here’s what the Intergovernmnental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said about extreme weather: “Globally, the area affected by drought has likely increased since the 1970s…It is likely that heat waves have become more frequent over most land areas....It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation events…. has increased over most areas. It is likely that the incidence of extreme high sea level has increased at a broad range of sites worldwide since 1975.”

Global Warning

The Hot Generation

Droughts, heat waves—with the evidence mounting of major climate change, why aren’t parents taking action to protect their children from its dire effects? Mark Hertsgaard calls for parents to act just like they would if a train was heading toward their children.

The dream is always the same:

His daughter is crossing the street, holding his hand, when he hears a whistle blow—loud, mournful, insistent. Behind her, in the middle distance, he sees a train racing toward the intersection.

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Matt Gray / Getty Images

He tightens his grip to hurry them across. But suddenly they’re unable to move, like in the games of freeze tag he played as a boy.

Instantly, his torso drenches in sweat. He shouts to passers-by: “Help us! Stop the train!” But they ignore his cries, as if they can’t hear.

Again the whistle groans. The train keeps coming. He screams louder.

Then he wakes up, heart pounding, and no more does he sleep that night.

This dream belongs to a journalistic colleague who, like me, has covered the climate story long enough to understand the implacable science facing his child as our planet continues overheating. But after he shared it with me, it became my dream too. Except in my version, it was my 7-year-old daughter, Chiara, and I who were crossing the street, frozen in place, as the climate train bore down upon us.

Dire

The Coming Climate Crisis

Record-breaking heat. Floods. Droughts. Tornadoes. Don’t believe the skeptics—the evidence of climate change is all around us. An interview with climatologist Heidi Cullen.

When I reached Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central, she remarked on the glorious weather we were enjoying. But underneath our pleasure at the sunshine and blossoms, we were both feeling uneasy about the warmth. So far all 11 years of the 21st century have been among the 13 warmest years on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

greenest-cities-tease

Cullen is in the habit of keeping a close eye on the weather: Climate Central is a nonprofit science research organization headquartered in Princeton, N.J. Before she joined them, Cullen, who holds a doctorate from Columbia University, was the Weather Channel’s first on-air climate expert.

We had just been through a March of record-shattering heat, and we were roasting through mid-April days. On top of that, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of the U.S. is experiencing an unusually dry period, with southern Florida bone dry. More than 63 percent of Georgia is in the worst two levels of drought, the highest of any state.

Because of the dry, windy conditions, wildfires and brush fires have been raging along the East Coast from New England to Florida; billowing black clouds from New Jersey Meadowlands fires have been visible from midtown Manhattan. And in much of New England, stream flow levels were at record lows—with Vermont, though still reeling from last summer’s disastrous floods, abnormally dry.

“We may have just broken another record,” Cullen says of the recent heat wave. “That’s what we do these days. We break records.”

Cullen noted that her phone didn’t stop ringing during the March heat wave. Whenever there is an unusual weather event, journalists want to know if it is caused by climate change. “In fact, I was just talking to someone at NPR who facetiously asked, ‘How’s your summer going so far?’”

It seemed an appropriate atmosphere in which to ask a climate scientist what’s going on with the weather. And what weather has to do with climate change.

America Under Drought