Severe drought has blistered crops across the nation, and Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng warns of the potential for catastrophe if the hot, dry conditions do not improve.

"There have been some disasters already for some farmers in the north central states," Lyng said Tuesday during a series of meetings on Capitol Hill.The northern Great Plains, parts of the Corn Belt, the Mississippi Delta and the Rocky Mountain states are parched by weeks of dry weather. Montana and the Dakotas appear to be suffering the most, and in some parts of the Dakotas crops have turned brown from lack of water.

Lyng described the situation in stark terms during a meeting with senators, though he would not endorse any drought relief legislation, arguing it is still early in the growing season and crops have time to recover.

"The fact is that we are having in some places in the United States, quite large areas, severe drought," Lyng said. "For the nation as a whole, it is a little bit too early to say we have a grim disaster nationwide, but the potential is there."

Leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture committees agreed to form a "working group" to join an Agriculture Department task force in monitoring the drought and seeing what congressional action may be needed.

If dry weather persists, said Rep. Edward Madigan, R-Ill., it could be the worst drought in 50 years. "This has potential for national scope," he said.

Pastures and range land are in the worst shape for early June since 1934 - the time of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, said Norton Strommen, chief meteorologist for the department's World Agricultural Outlook Board.

Lyng repeated his opposition to opening the Conservation Reserve as a drought-battling tool, but he acknowledged officials have looked into it. The reserve, which holds 25 million acres, was created to take highly erodible land out of production.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., urged Lyng to open the Conservation Reserve so farmers would not have to sell livestock for lack of feed.

"They're driving by (fields of) hay as they ship their cattle south," Daschle said.

"We're facing a disaster now," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who pointed to estimates that farmers in his state could lose $2.7 billion if they have to return government subsidy payments and miss out on rising wheat prices.