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An old foe returns

Drought is one of the most terrifying words in the English language, at least for Upper Midwest agriculturalists.

It means watching crops, pasture and hay fields fade and wither, day after day, until they die.

It means scanning weather forecasts, searching — and often not finding — reason for hope.

It means wondering if there will be money to pay your bills and feed your family.

It means dealing with fear and frustration, pain and loss.

If you have long involvement in agriculture, you almost certainly have experienced drought's awful power. Asked which drought years you remember most, you might answer 2012, 2002, 1988, 1961 or even several years in the 1930s.

But the region's long wet cycle has muted drought's impact in recent years. So some among the next generation of agriculturalists might have only limited exposure to it.

The old foe has returned in force this summer, however. The "D word", as some in ag call it, is hitting parts of the region. A few of the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, released June 12, help to illustrate agriculturalists' plight:

• Fifty-three percent of North Dakota range and pasture was in poor or very poor condition. Forty-five percent of South Dakota range and pasture rated poor or very poor, with 22 percent of Montana range and pasture poor or very poor.

• Fifty-seven percent of South Dakota spring wheat rated poor or very poor. Thirty-one percent of Montana's spring wheat was in poor or very poor condition, with 17 percent of North Dakota spring wheat poor or very poor.

Those distressing numbers should be better when USDA releases its next weekly report on June 19. Parts of Agweek Country had just received rain, in some cases significant amounts, when this editorial was being written. More rain was forecast, too.

Some moisture-short areas will receive too little rain or miss out altogether, of course. And in some cases, the precipitation comes too late to fully offset damage already done. But overall the new moisture clearly has helped to blunt the developing drought.

We realize drought isn't unique to the Upper Midwest; farmers and ranchers worldwide struggle with it. California's long battle, the worst of which now appears over, at least temporarily, is painful proof of that.

The joys of timely rains

A small minority of people outside ag might be unsympathetic when drought strikes. The very callous might say: "Don't expect us to feel sorry for you. Occasional drought is inevitable in the Upper Midwest; you knew that going in. But you picked the profession and lifestyle anyway."

True enough. But unless you're an agriculturalist who's lived through drought — watched crops, pasture and hay fields wither and die, felt the fear and frustration, pain and loss — you can't fully understand.

We don't know what the summer will bring. Drought might weaken, or it might grow worse. The latter could require affected aggies — including ones suffering through drought for the first time — to cut expenses or find off-farm jobs to help pay the bills.

But we are sure of this: Drought, though powerful, is not invincible. Even modest amounts of precipitation at the right times can do great good.

Drought is the bane of agriculture, timely rains the balm. We hope you get them.

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