Wheat farmers anxiously watch dry fields turn brown Great Plains alarmed by drought's timing


BURLINGTON, Colo. -- Wes Robbins, a toddler during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s and a wheat farmer who survived the drought in the 1950s, doesn't want to say the word now.

His fields of tender green winter wheat, usually as soft and thick as a boardroom carpet, are dotted with patches of raw brown earth, and the sky arches a hard, cloudless blue, the same nearly every day for the last nine months.

"It's not a drought," the retired farmer insists. "Not yet."

Mr. Robbins' reluctance to confront what he sees is not shared by his neighbors here in Kit Carson County on Colorado's border with Kansas, in the country's premier wheat-producing region.

"The talk about the drought, it's all over here," said Bruce Unruh, 42, who farms 2,500 acres just outside Burlington. "When you don't get moisture, you don't get crops."

The Great Plains -- from Nebraska down through Kansas and across Colorado to the Rockies, and south through Texas to the Mexican border -- isn't getting moisture.

Nebraska had the driest February -- with just 0.03 inches of moisture -- in 121 years. In Arizona and New Mexico, where some counties have gotten only a third of the normal rain and snow, extra firefighting teams have been brought in to guard 11 million acres of national forests and parks.

Oklahoma estimates the drought will cost $560 million in lost crops and grazing land, added feeding costs and fire damage.

"When you start looking at this, all of a sudden you go, 'This is serious,' " said Alice Jones, an associate professor of soil science at the University of Nebraska.

What is ominous -- and what the farmers point out in their next breath -- is the timing. The dry weather coincides with a 20-year cycle of droughts, starting with the 1930s and the Dust Bowl, and the five years of drought from 1952 to 1957 that Mr. Robbins, 62, called "the most fair drought I have ever seen -- it got the good managers and the bad managers. It outlasted you."

A drought in the early 1970s caused the worst fire season in New Mexico and Arizona, said Dan Winner, assistant director of aviation and fire management for the U.S. Forest Service. Conditions haven't been as bad until this year, he said.

"Now here we are in the mid-'90s," said Charlie Liles, an area manager for the National Weather Service station in Albuquerque, N.M. "I've heard comments from some of the ranchers saying this reminds them of the '50s, and they're the ones on the front lines."

As for consumers, "they can watch bread prices go up that will never go back down," Mr. Unruh said. "And they'll blame the farmer."

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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