The current drought is similar to the droughts of the 1950s, which weren't as intense as those of the 1930s, said Jake Crouch, a climatologist with the National Climatic Data Center. And farming has changed a lot since the Dust Bowl era. Better soil conservation has reduced erosion, and modern hybrids are much more resistant to drought.
But Crouch said it's important to understand that this drought is still unfolding.
"We can't say with certainty how long this might last now. Now that we're going up against the two largest droughts in history, that's something to be wary of," Crouch said. "The coming months are really going to be the determining factor of how big a drought it ends up being."
In northwest Kansas, Brian Baalman's cattle pastures have dried up, along with probably half of his corn crop. He desperately needs some rain to save the rest of it, and he's worried what will happen if the drought lingers into next year.
"I have never seen this type of weather before like this. A lot of old timers haven't either," Baalman said. "I just think we are seeing history in the making."
The federal government is already moving to help farmers and ranchers.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week announced plans for streamlining the aid process. A major goal is to cut the time it takes to declare an agricultural disaster area. He also reduced interest rates for emergency loans and made it cheaper for farmers to graze livestock or cut hay on lands otherwise locked up in a conversation program.
Some state governments are stepping in, too. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency in 42 counties last week to speed up the issuance of permits for temporarily using stream or lake water for irrigation.
During a visit Monday to a southern Illinois corn and soybean farm, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced that drought-affected farmers would be eligible for state debt restructuring and loan programs in addition to the aid the USDA announced last week.
Quinn ventured into a corn field where he spent some time looking for an actual ear of corn. When he found one and peeled off the husk, there were no kernels.
Two-thirds of Illinois is in what's classified as a severe drought or worse. Neighboring Indiana is even worse, with 70 percent in at least a severe drought.
Brummer could normally count on corn yields of 170 bushels per acre. He expects to get just 10 bushels this year, if he gets anything at all.
The top of the cornstalks are an unhealthy pale green, he said. Many of them have no ears, and "if there are there are a few kernels, they don't seem to know if they should die or make a grain."
Crop insurance will cover up to 150 bushels per acre. But no coverage is available for Brummer's livestock, so he figures he'll lose $350,000 to $400,000 on that side of the operation.
Not long ago, Brummer rejoiced along with countless other Midwest growers about getting their crops in the ground early.
"It looked really good until about a month ago," he said. "Then the concerns started, and it's been downhill ever since."
Karnowski reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press Writer Roxana Hegeman contributed to this story from Wichita, Kan.
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