W.Va. drought fears worsening

September 01, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Tension over this year's drought was apparent at a special meeting Wednesday in Berkeley County as state leaders spread word of a dry fall forecast and uneasy farmers asked when federal relief will come.

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Partly in reaction to a National Weather Service prediction that rainfall will be below normal in the fall, state officials are taking extra precautions to fight wildfires during the autumn season, according to West Virginia Office of Emergency Services Director John Pack, one of those who led the drought meeting at Martinsburg City Hall.

State Agriculture Commissioner Gus R. Douglass said it "absolutely scares me to death" thinking about how farmers will make it through the winter after being forced to sell off livestock much earlier than expected due to dwindling feed supplies brought on by the drought.

Douglass asked banks to have sympathy on farmers and avoid foreclosing on farms until farmers have a chance to start new crops next year.


"This is serious," he said.

"This drought is by no means over," Pack said. "We could get 8 inches of rain tomorrow and this drought will not be over."

The state Legislature has taken the lead on drought relief for West Virginia farmers, setting aside $11 million, part of which is to buy 10,000 bales of hay that is being trucked into the state from North Carolina, Missouri and Arkansas.

But farmers at the meeting seemed most concerned about waiting for federal relief money.

Relief so far has been announced in the form of low-interest loans, but they are of little help for most, said Berkeley County Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart, who is a farmer.

Farmers need cash to help them offset massive losses in crop damage, said Burkhart, who lost 10 acres of sweet corn this summer.

"What you need to realize is that there are not many of us crazy people left that will farm," said Burkhart, who said he does not think the public realizes the severity of the problem.

When U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman toured a drought-ravaged farm in Jefferson County on Aug. 2, he compared the situation to serious droughts that have affected the West in recent years, said Morgan County Commissioner Phil Maggio.

Glickman said the Western states received $6 billion in drought relief, and he considered the Eastern Panhandle's situation to be of equal magnitude, Maggio said.

"How long are we going to wait for this?" Maggio asked Douglass.

Douglass acknowledged that getting federal relief has been frustrating. The federal government seems to "scatter money" all over the Midwest when drought conditions arise, said Douglass.

U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Robert C. Byrd accompanied Glickman on the drought tour in Jefferson County.

A Rockefeller representative who was at the meeting said the senator remains serious about getting relief for farmers.

Although initial efforts to put together a $200 million federal drought relief package were unsuccessful, Rockefeller wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and U.S. Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., urging them to move head on drought relief. Cochran is the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and Skeen has been working on an agriculture appropriations bill.

"I just don't want you to think he has deserted you in this effort," Rockefeller spokeswoman Penny Householder told those gathered.

A dozen state-owned tractor-trailers and more than 50 leased trucks are delivering the 10,000 bales of hay to farmers across the state, Pack said. Jefferson County farmers have already received some of the feed.

Any farmer who wants to receive the hay needs to apply at a local Farm Service Agency office, said Douglass.

Douglass warned farmers that the imported hay may have elevated nitrate levels. Farmers need to be careful to not mix hay with high nitrate levels with other high-nitrate level feed to guard against livestock poisoning, he said.

Other forms of state relief include:

* Waiving for farmers the $50 fee charged to drill wells.

* Urging state police troopers to ease the restriction that farm-use vehicles cannot be driven more than 10 miles on public roads. Farmers may have to drive further to get water, officials said.

* Bringing an 842-gallon capacity "air tanker" to the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport to help battle any wildfires that may erupt over the fall months. The twin-engine plane is similar to ones used in the West to fight forest fires, Pack said.

The plane will probably be here from Sept. 15 to Nov. 15.

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