North Carolina farmers look to the skies for drought relief. Corn and cattle growers suffer most from effects of inadequate rainfall

The second half of the year must bring considerable relief from North Carolina's severe drought or many farmers could be wiped out. ``We're concerned that if we don't get rain, we'll have our worst crisis ever,'' said David Slater, associate agricultural-extension agent for Randolph County just south of Greensboro.

Only 7 inches of rain fell this past June, a third of the normal 21 inches. Such prolonged dry spells, which have hit more than 75 percent of the state's farms, come around once in a century, according to National Weather Service officials.

``The Piedmont [central North Carolina] and some eastern counties are having it roughest -- worst ever since 1885,'' said Jim Graham, North Carolina's agricultural commissioner. ``I've seen it drier, but later in the year when damage is less.''

Corn has been hardest hit, according to agriculture officials. Half of Randolph County's 1,500 farmers earned $2.65 million on 21,000 acres of corn last year when each acre averaged 100 bushels, considered a break-even figure. But the yield could dwindle to 40 bushels per acre or less this year, especially if there is not sufficient rain.

``If cornfields aren't developing grain by mid-July, growers may consider, if they wish, to harvest plants then for livestock feed,'' said Harvey Spouts, the county's extension agent.

Those options could mean a substantial loss for growers who usually wait until grain matures starting in late August. Grain is either sold for human consumption or harvested with the entire plant to make a nutritious silage, Mr. Spouts said.

Mr. Graham said he is ``telling farmers to harvest hay and wheat straw for sale later. Those prices have to rise. Unquestionably the biggest loss is to corn and pasture land. Terrible.''

``Beef cattle owners have lost as much as 85 percent of the pasture and hay to feed their stock,'' said L.C. Lathan, a director of the United States Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.

``I don't believe the Lord meant for cows to bawl, the way they do without sweet grass,'' said Herbert Fincher who farms near the South Carolina border.

``If they're going to get out of the cattle business, now is the time to do it,'' Spouts said. He suggested that farmers may wish to cull unproductive cows to reduce feeding expense.

Jerry Smith, who farms 1,400 acres on the Mecklenburg-Union County line with his brother, wants enough grain to break even financially. ``It is a question of how much we lose ... whether we'll be totally wiped out,'' Mr. Smith said.

The brothers are facing a potential wipeout by the dearth of corn, soybeans, and other crops as $750,000 worth of mortgaged farm machinery lies idle. ``If you tried to sell the machinery,'' Smith explained, ``it might bring no more than 10 cents on the dollar, but nobody wants it.''

All but a few of North Carolina's 100 counties in the far southeastern part of the state are expected to apply for federal disaster relief aid. Farmers who stand to lose at least 30 percent of their incomes in declared counties can apply for low-interest loans.

In residential and business areas casualties are ruined gardens, brown lawns, and low or no water presssure at the faucets. Municipalities are struggling to pump record supplies of water and some have curtailed its use.

``A Cherokee Indian chief named Richard Crow was hired to do a traditional tribal dance in downtown Charlotte, a lighthearted way to remind folks that if there's anything they can do to help conserve water they ought to do it,'' said an official from the radio station who hired him.

North Carolinians are hoping July and August continue to be the ``wettest'' months so far due to afternoon and evening thunder showers. Long-range forecasts through August, however, don't hold much promise for drought-breaking rains. Tropical storms later in the summer are a possibility, note weather observers. ``We need an inch a week to maintain agriculture,'' said Rett Davis, agriculture extension service chairman in Alamance County.

Since May 1985, the monthly rainfall has been normal or above normal only four months, including November's eight inches. Beginning in December, each month's rainfall has been woefully under normal.

Weather officials explained the drought is being caused by a high-pressure system that instead of hovering near the Bermuda islands is centered over North and South Carolina. It is blocking storms and pushing them west over Texas, causing flash floods on north to the midwest. Dry air from the northwest also is contributing.

Fire officials are concerned about fireworks over the Fourth of July. Fireworks are illegal in North Carolina, said Charlotte's Frank Casey. ``But I'm not naive enough to say people won't shoot them off. We could have some grass fires very easily this year as dry as it is.''

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