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Spud Walker, of Fay, Okla., said the small-grain harvest from Texas to North Dakota is as bad as he’s seen it, since coming through with custom combine crews starting back in the ‘50s. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune

Drought delivers double-whammy to southwestern North Dakota

HETTINGER COUNTY, N.D. — Aryn Hansen could see her coffee cup as half full or half empty, and, after opening a new coffeehouse on Mott's Main Street during one of the driest springs on record, she remains optimistic.

However, during what should be a bustling harvest season, this young businesswoman notices the customers she doesn't have — the wives of the custom combine crews who might have stopped at the Tilted Tulip for a specialty coffee and fresh muffin after the crews hit the fields.

Those wives aren't around because the custom crews that normally pull in with fleets of combines, semis and house-sized RVs aren't around, either.

A few crews have made their annual summer-to-fall migration up the Great Plains, picking up what little harvest work there is for longtime customers, just to keep their names in the contact book.

One of those is Spud Walker, from Fay, Okla., who was poking under the hood of his pickup in a field near Regent last week, after a few showers stopped work for the afternoon.

Sharing the pain

The custom crew reduced its normal rate this year — cutting off $5 an acre — to share the financial downside of the drought. Yields are definitely down in small grains, if they weren't already rolled up into feed for livestock instead of becoming flour-based products for humans.

"Well, some days we just twiddle our thumbs," Walker said. "I've been coming up here since the '50s, and this is the worst year we've ever had. I've never seen it so bad — the whole way from Texas to here."

He said a lot of guys baled up their crop and don't want to hire anybody in a combine. The yield out in fields still standing ranges from 5 bushels to as high as 30 bushels an acre, even the high side still just half of what's become typical since no-till farm practices took hold.

The field where Walker Harvesting is staged in Regent is normally packed with crews and equipment. This year, it's about as empty as a golf course in a lightning storm.

It's the same in Mott, and Mott Mayor Troy Mosbrucker said campgrounds normally packed wall to wall are maybe 30 percent occupied this year.

"It affects everyone — the cafes, the gas stations, the grocery stores," he said.

Pheasants affected

He's worried the drought impact will carry over into the pheasant hunting season, another traditional economic engine in the southwest region most years.

Drought conditions — now rated from moderate to exceptional across more than 99 percent of the state — affected habitat, plant diversity and insect hatches. Bird numbers could have suffered as a result, according to Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department's wildlife chief.

Williams said the department's brood survey will be done at the end of the month, but it already appears that the traditional hot spot for pheasants will take yet another hit.

"It's not surprising, given that we have these extreme drought conditions right in the heart of pheasant country," Williams said.

Hunters should see to it that they have plenty of available data on their cellphones, because before they hit the field they will need to do daily monitoring of the Rural Fire Danger Index. The index will provide a county-by-county update of any special limitations related to off-road driving, campfires or smoking outside a vehicle.

Dangerous activities

"The fire danger is not from the hunting, but from associated activities. Using the index gets to the activities during a situation when the fire danger is high or extreme and still allows hunting to go on," Williams said.

The limitations could be standard or customized depending on the individual county, and it will be up to the hunter to know where he's at and what applies, he said. The index is on the department's and the state Emergency Services Department's websites.

To say that the drought is on everyone's mind in rural North Dakota is an understatement.

About 180 people packed into the Mott KC Hall for a special meeting early last week, when Gov. Doug Burgum, Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring and a coterie of agency managers talked about the state and federal response to the situation, ranging from emergency loan programs to grants for livestock water supply projects.

Burgum said a livestock water supply program to help livestock producers has "burned through" about $750,000 so far and is looking for more funds.

"We've done all we can by executive order for hay hauling. For small grains, that season is shot, and we're really focusing on the livestock people and getting through winter. We take this really seriously," Burgum said.

He expressed concern about the fire danger, with about 250 reported fires since July 1 and just 30 of those in the past week or two.

He said rural folks tend to be self-reliant, but he urged everyone to keep their cell phone charged and handy and call 911 first before fighting any field fires.

"It's OK to call for help," he said.

No end in sight

Back in Bismarck, at the National Weather Service, meteorologists such as Todd Hamilton continue to update short- and long-range forecasts for rain. The crystal ball is coming up dry.

The end of a drought is measured when its impacts are relieved, not just when rainfall catches back up and exceeds normal averages, he said.

Hamilton said it appears an abnormally dry spring and summer — Bismarck is still in the range of 4 to 5 inches below average — will be followed by more of the same looking out over the next 90 days.

"There's no real strong indicator going into the fall that there will be any above-average precipitation periods. That's to be expected; we're now entering the dry time of year anyway. Climatologically speaking, the chance of enough rain to end the drought is not real good," he said.