Don Mason's family in Garden Grove, Iowa, sold most of their 450 head of cattle this summer because they couldn't feed the animals. After three dry months, the Masons' 900 acres yielded a third of the hay the fields usually yield in a good year, the 24-year-old farmer says. The Masons were on the brink of selling some of their remaining 150 cows when Mr. Mason heard that Idaho had hay to spare.
``I left home by bus the next morning at 7:30 and drove 40 hours straight to get here,'' the sunburned farmer said last week as he waited for farm machinery outside the Deary, Idaho, Grange Hall with 63 other farmers from drought-stricken southern Iowa.
Mason wants to take home 600 to 700 bales of hay to ensure that his cows make it through the winter, he says.
Judy Bandstra, a dairy farmer from Chariton, Iowa, hopes to go home with 5,000 bales for her employer's cows. Howard Westercamp, also from Chariton, doesn't really need hay for his small, 10-cow operation. But he came to Idaho to help his neighbors.
The United States Department of Agriculture put out the call to farm bureaus in all 50 states six weeks ago asking for donations of hay for the Midwestern farmers. When the federal agency released a similar appeal three years ago, Iowa farmers responded and donated their crops to weather-beaten South Carolinians.
This time, Idaho was the only state able to respond, says Mike Tracy, state farm bureau spokesman.
The Iowa group began harvesting Idaho hay last Thursday afternoon after waiting a day for farm equipment that they borrowed from local farmers for harvesting.
The acreage identified by the Idaho farm organization as available for haying is part of the US government's conservation reserve program, Mr. Tracy says. Under the program, the government pays farmers by the acre to raise cover crops like hay for 10 years in high erosion areas.
Because the government pays the farmers for the special use of their lands, they aren't allowed to profit from the crops grown on that land, explained Carol Rubin, of the National Farmers' Organization.
But the farmers may give away the crops, which is what many in northern Idaho's rolling Palouse farmlands elected to do.
Word that Idaho had hay spread like prairie fire through the dry regions of Iowa.
``My boss asked what I'd think about going to Idaho for the hay,'' says Ms. Bandstra, a ponytailed dairy farmer wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with ``I Survived the Drought of '88 in Lucas County, Iowa.''
``I didn't need to think. I said, `Damn right I'll go.' I'm attached to my cows and don't want to see them go hungry.''
Greyhound Bus Lines donated two buses to transport the 64 farmers to the Northwest. Banks in both states donated money for food and fuel. Three inns in Moscow, Idaho, a university town in the center of the Idaho farmland, donated 10 rooms each for the Iowans' nine-day stay.
Burlington Northern Railroad donated 13 freight cars to haul home the 1,500 to 5,000 tons of hay the farmers expect to harvest.
``I haven't spent $10 yet,'' says Mr. Westercamp, who, with the other farmers, feasted on pancakes, eggs, and ham prepared by Deary women Thursday morning.
``We've been having a ball,'' says Margaret Racicot as she peeled potatoes with her friends in the grange hall. ``We've got 17 women volunteering to cook and clean up. It's been a lot of fun.''
For the ready-to-work group of Iowans, a day's wait for borrowed equipment meant less hay for their animals. They must reap what they can from the conservation program fields by today when donations run out and they return home. And with every day that passes, the alfalfa and timothy grasses get drier and less nutritious.
``It's not top grade hay we're getting. We know that,'' says Westercamp. ``But when you've got nothing, it's a lot better than that.''