WELLINGTON, KAN. — After months of praying for rain, farmers in this south-central Kansas community awoke one day this spring to see not thunderheads but huge, rust-colored clouds of dust mounting on the horizon.
In a drama reminiscent of the 1930s Dust Bowl, the clouds roared into town, blinding traffic, choking cattle, and leaving piles of powder-fine soil like snowdrifts along roads and window sills.
Worst of all, the dryland farmers of Sumner County, the self-proclaimed "wheat capital of the world," watched the swirling winds spirit away their own parched topsoil and with it much of this year's stunted wheat crop.
"Once the topsoil is gone, it's gone forever," observes Mike Slack, who lost most of the crop on his 1,300-acre farm near Oxford. "Forever is a long time."
The drought of 1995-96 has been the most severe in memory, scorching fields from Kansas to Texas and west to Nevada. It is prompting calls for a national drought policy and causing some farmers to rethink their methods.
Already, the dry skies have cost regional farmers more than $3 billion in lost crops and livestock and pushed thousands of growers to the brink of bankruptcy, agronomists say.
This year's harvest of winter wheat, the hardest-hit major crop, is projected to fall 40 percent below average to 237 million bushels in Kansas, the leading US wheat-growing state. With wheat prices above $5 a bushel, that amounts to a loss of more than $800 million. The drought also hurt wheat production in Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas, which faces its most meager crop in 20 years.
The scarcity and rising price of wheat has also hurt the cattle industry in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, where livestock are often pastured on winter wheat sprouts. Many farmers, unable to afford expensive feed, have sold extra cattle for slaughter, causing beef prices to plummet.
The total cost of the drought is expected to reach several billion dollars as the impact of lower farm output and income ripples through the economy, says Gary Paulsen, an agronomist at Kansas State University in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, extreme drought still holds much of the region in its grip. Although summer storms have brought some spotty, temporary relief in recent weeks, these have not changed the long-term weather patterns blamed for the dry spell.
"The high pressure pattern that has caused the persistent drought in the Southwest and southern Great Plains continues to dominate," says Don Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. "In most of these areas the drought is not over at all."
Meteorologists believe the high pressure is created by an irregular, cold ocean current known as La Nia, the opposite of the warm El Nio current. That pressure, in turn, has shifted northward the jet stream carrying storms across the United States, limiting rainfall further south.
Galvanized by the drought's severity, officials and farmers from around the stricken region are calling for a national drought policy to mitigate the impact of this and future rainfall shortages.
"A comprehensive, integrated response to drought emergencies is critical," the 18-state Western Governors' Association urged in a resolution sent to President Clinton last month. The June 24 missive criticized current drought-relief efforts as "slow and fragmented" compared with that for other natural disasters.
This week, a multistate task force will also present a report on short- and long-term measures to alleviate the drought to the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The report stresses that a national policy is vital because unlike more sudden, clearly defined disasters "droughts creep up on you," says Buddy Young, chairman of the task force and director of the FEMA regional office in Denton, Texas. "By the time you find out, you're really in trouble."
The report calls for the federal government to create a central clearing house to coordinate both drought-related programs in the states and overall water resource management.
"We need to be thinking about how to conserve water in this nation," says Mr. Young, warning that the nation faces the threat of severe water shortages. Currently, he says, "there are so many different agencies involved in making decisions on water use. There is no continuity in what we do."
The governors' association is also pressing the Clinton administration and Congress for immediate aid, including more emergency loans for farmers, cattlefeed for ranchers, and help with well drilling and fire suppression. Such aid would come on top of $70 million in relief ordered by Mr. Clinton last month.
Short-term loans and other assistance are welcome in financially strapped Sumner County, where most people make their living farming. With a scant two inches of rain between August 1995 and March, an estimated 70 percent of the county's wheat crop was abandoned this year for a loss of $50 million. Harvested acres yielded only 10 to 15 bushels of wheat, less than half of what is normal.
"The biggest problem for farmers here now is that they can't pay down debt," says Mike Graves, who suffered a $31,000 loss when the drought forced him to "tear up" 450 acres of wheat. Insurance payments will allow Mr. Graves to recoup less than half the loss.
Yet far more vital than stop-gap aid, experts say, are long-range strategies to lessen the vulnerability of drought-prone areas.
In dryland areas such as Sumner County, these strategies include no-till farming, strip cropping, and crop rotation to retain soil moisture and prevent erosion. In regions using irrigation, communities can step-up water conservation.
Like many other Kansas farmers, Graves replanted his destroyed wheat acreage in milo and other row crops this spring. By diversifying and rotating what they plant, farmers can reduce disease and weeds from successive wheat crops and respond better to droughts, says Sumner County extension agent Ed LeValley.
Early-warning systems are another potentially valuable tool for combating drought. Such systems are designed to track moisture, monitoring soil wetness, stream flow, snow pack, precipitation, and other indicators of a drought's onset. Early detection then allows farmers to make better decisions on what, when, and how much to plant.
Over the past decade, meteorologists around the globe have begun to create more sophisticated drought predictors by studying links between dry weather in various regions and the appearance of El Nio and La Nia currents. Growers in Australia and parts of Africa have benefited from such research in recent years, Wilhite says.
But for now, most American farmers rely on age-old weather forecasting and a down-to-earth realism that comes with the occupation. "What most farmers do is get up in the morning and look at the sky. They know what it's going to do. They go day to day," says Graves as he inspects the first heads of grain on his milo crop.
"They say we're going to be in a three- to four-year drought, but we don't know," he says. "That's up to Mother Nature."