"Speaking of the drought," say Dr. James Ells, a vegetable crop specialist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, "if it hadn't been for television, we wouldn't have known anything about it."
Ells' word may seem startling to people whose information about the drought comes mainly from press and TV reports. Most of the accounts have focused on the plight of farmers in the most severely stricken areas, such as the Dakotas.But there is a brighter side to the nation's 1988 crop situation. In parts of the Farm Belt, supplies of water have been abundant enough so far to ensure a near-normal harvest of many basic commodities.
Colorado may be in the best shape of any state west of the Mississippi. "We came through last winter with a pretty good snowpack (in the Rocky Mountains)," Ells says, "and we went into this spring with full reservoirs."
Also, he says, "We are getting normal precipitation. If anything, we've had a little above normal." He hastens to add, however, that in Colorado's case, normal rainfall does not amount to very much. Far more crucial to the state's yearly crop outlook is the size of the alpine snowpack, which feeds rivers and streams as it melts in the spring and summer months.
In parts of neighboring Nebraska, the farm situation also seems promising. "Central and Western Nebraska will have a normal crop," says Leo Holthaus, director of the Lincoln, Neb., field operations office of the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. "But the eastern end of the state will be set back." In this connection, he notes that a 60-mile stretch of the Platte River, between Columbus and Grand Island is now dry.
Access to groundwater is the main reason central and western Nebraska are in such relatively good shape. That portion of the state lies directly over the Ogallala aquifer, a massive subterranean reservoir that taps hundreds of thousands of wells.
Once the water is pumped to the surface it is deposited on farmland through massive sprinkler systems that serve circular plots measuring a half-mile in diameter. These giant green circles, with their slowing rotating booms of spraying water, make for a striking sight from jetliners passing overhead.
Irrigation, of course, is not free, and the farmer must weight the cost against the price he expects to receive for his crop before he decides how much pumped water he can afford to use. Because of this summer's dry spell, the irrigation season began as much as a month earlier than usual in some areas.
That will mean higher electricity bills for running the pumps that bring the groundwater to the surface. But crop prices are up, too. For instance, corn was selling for $3.02 a bushel on June 30, up from $1.80 a year earlier; the price of soybeans that day was $9.66 a bushel, up from $5.33 a year earlier.
But as all farmers know, today's favorable conditions may not be so favorable tomorrow. For instance, a thin snowpack next winter would spell trouble for Colorado agriculture. "If the snow doesn't come and we don't get our reservoirs filled, well then, we've got a problem," Ells says.