Oklahoma in Grip of New Dust Bowl

Agricultural losses exceed $2 billion, and the National Guard has been called out to haul hay in one of worst droughts in history.

Everett Cottrell's boots crunch pieces of red clay the size of shingles as he makes a loud whooping sound through cupped hands, a feeding call that is intended to bring in his cattle.

In a normal year, he'd be walking through clover, kicking up the light scent of sage. A cacophony of black Angus would move his way across the open range. But today, in the air still heavy and in the high 90s at sunset, only a few dozen head approach, and the response has nothing to do with his cattle-summoning acumen.

"I think this drought that started back in 1996 will be remembered as the worst in history," says Mr. Cottrell, scanning the horizon for the rest of the 200 head left of a herd that once numbered more than a thousand.

As August draws to a close, Oklahoma is experiencing what many describe as a 1990s version of the Dust Bowl. Hundreds if not thousands of farmers and ranchers are expected to lose their land. Already, the drought has produced more than $2 billion in losses statewide. The National Guard has been called out to haul hay.

But the latest hardship to hit this slice of the American prairie also shows how much Oklahoma has changed since the days of the first Dust Bowl. Once almost exclusively a farm economy, Oklahoma today is an urbanized state that is driven as much by computers and aircraft as by cattle and wheat - a transformation that is helping make the "Grapes of Wrath" a treatise on the past.

"Steinbeck has already written his book," says Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R), pointing out the vast differences between the agrarian economy of the 1930s and the state's diversity today. "We now have aerospace jobs, an expanding information-technology sector, and the service industry is growing. Even with collapsed oil, wheat, and cattle prices, we moved up four places in per capita income this year."

None of this is to minimize the impact of the drought on agriculture. Governor Keating and other state officials are lobbying Washington for up to $1 billion in federal aid. Sixty-six of Oklahoma's 77 counties have been designated disaster areas. In the next three weeks, the remaining surface water in ponds essential for the cattle will dry up without rain.

One town's plight

The effect of the flint-dry conditions can be seen in a barn in nearby Ada, where there is a mass sell-off of cattle under way.

"Look at them little heat cattle, boys!" the auctioneer says, interrupting his otherwise indiscernible stream of auctioneer-speak. Cattle are pushed through a sawdust pit, past buyers who flash cards or nod their bids. They are snatching up steers at bargain prices to take back to Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, and Iowa, where abundant rainfall is producing bumper crops and feed.

The sell-off of Oklahoma's cattle herd is occurring at three times the normal rate. At present, ranchers are selling steers at roughly half the normal price. "It will go down another 10 to 15 percent," predicts Mark Sherrill, owner of the sales barn.

"It's about to get serious, quick," concurs cattle seller Fred Sanders from Lindsey, who lived through the hard times of the 1930s and other dry times in the '50s and '80s. "They aren't paying enough attention to this," he says of Washington.

In Ada, a town of 15,000 people where people still open doors for each other, the impact is being felt everywhere from the Save A Lot grocery store to the John Deere tractor shop. "Lawn and garden sales are already off," says Gene Boyles from behind the service counter of the farm-implement store.

Everyone is grateful for the SoloCup manufacturing plant on the edge of town and the small state college, both of which create good-paying jobs.

Even so, across the state, there is concern about what the latest problems mean for small-town Oklahoma, where the agricultural dollar is particularly important. If up to one-third of cattle producers could go under, as some predict, the consequences could be grave. "It will hit everyone on Main Street," says A.L. Hutson, an agricultural economist for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Duncan. "It's not there yet, but it will be."

Already, the state's cooperative extension service is counseling a record number of ranchers, helping them with financial planning. Many farmers borrow up to 70 percent of their assets. Successful management of debt repayment can mean the difference between failure and survival. "Some stick their head in the sand until the banker calls," says Mr. Hutson.

For those keeping a remnant of their herds to start over next spring, hay has become a desperate commodity. Many ranchers are being forced to buy hay for the first time in their lives. The state has set up a toll-free hay hot line, and a Web site, for those buying and selling.

Pitchforks, not M-16s

The National Guard was activated three weeks ago to help distribute what hay is left across the state. "During some of the first deliveries, people were coming up behind the trucks, picking up loose clumps of hay that had fallen off," says Sgt. Tommy Lewis, escorting a convoy of trucks nicknamed "the cow chow express" in his camouflage humvee. "People are pretty appreciative," he says.

Despite the depths of the current disaster, steps were taken after earlier droughts to minimize the impact of dry weather. Earthen barriers and trees designed to slow the wind and thus protect topsoil dot the landscape. Ponds, canals, and reservoirs are perpetually under construction for irrigation. "Since the 1930s Oklahoma has the second most miles of shoreline of any state when you consider the millions of farm ponds," says the state's agricultural commissioner, Dennis Howard.

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