IF last year's drought burned a wide swath through the central United States, the drought of 1989 has come with spotty fury. In places, timely rains have kept crops green and livestock ponds full. Other areas have been bone dry. It is characteristic of this summer's checkered dryness that Chicago received eight straight days of rain this month, while 175 miles downstate, Springfield, Ill., has received nary a drop. Of the three reporting stations around Omaha, Neb., one has received more than an inch of rain so far in August while the others have recorded virtually nothing.
``That's not exactly a balanced attack,'' says Peter Leavitt, a meteorologist with Weather Services Corporation in Bedford, Mass. ``It's a difficult pattern for people to come to grips with.''
``This is a very spotted thing,'' says Topper Thorpe, general manager of Cattle-Fax, a market information and analysis service affiliated with the National Cattlemen's Association. ``If you're under a thunderstorm, you're OK. If you're not, then you just have got nothing.''
Whereas last year's drought affected all parts of the Midwest and was focused east of the Mississippi River, this year's dryness is largely confined west of the Mississippi. The drought of 1988 slashed the nation's corn and soybean crops; this year, the biggest impact has been on winter wheat.
Overall, the drought impact is less this year than last.
``It's not '88,'' says Jon Davis, agricultural meteorologist with Shearson Lehman Hutton. But ``the trend is dry. ... In general, the crop is not going to turn out to be a great crop.''
On Thursday, the US Department of Agriculture estimated this year's corn crop at 7.35 billion bushels, up 50 percent from last year's harvest, but about average for the decade. The soybean crop was pegged at 1.91 billion bushels, up 24 percent from a year ago. The winter wheat harvest was estimated at 1.47 billion bushels, down 6 percent from a year ago.
These averages hide the variability of the drought within locales. Nebraska, one of the states hardest hit by this year's drought, is in worse shape than in 1988.
``I am really amazed the crops have held on as long as they have,'' says Jack Aschwege, the state's agricultural statistician. Soil moisture is so low that dryland crops - crops that aren't irrigated - need recurring rains.
After a dry spell last week, the quality of Nebraska's corn, sorghum, and soybean crops slid badly. As of Sunday, only 50 percent of the state's soybean crop was rated fair or better, compared with 83 percent a week earlier. Subsoil moisture is now rated in short supply at every reporting station in Nebraska. At the same time last year, only 67 percent of the state reported subsoil moisture in short supply.
The extended dryness raises questions for next year, too.
Meteorologists suggest the current period may parallel earlier drought years of the 20th century. In 1934-36 and again in 1954-56, a severe drought was followed by a better year followed by another extreme drought. Under this scenario, the prospects for 1990 are not encouraging.
In any case, large portions of the West will need to recharge soil moisture reserves with heavy rains and snows this winter and next spring. Otherwise, drought will continue to threaten crops and pasture land.
``It's kind of a gradual erosion,'' says Mr. Thorpe of the deteriorating pasture, on which many ranchers depend.
Farmers hurt by the drought will receive emergency federal aid again this year. On Monday, President Bush signed an $897 million aid package for distressed farmers. The measure is a quarter the size of 1988's $3.8 billion federal aid effort and is more selective, aiming to reward those farmers who took steps to protect their crops against a weather disaster.