Walker tours drought-stricken farms
SPRING PRAIRIE TOWNSHIP Walworth County farmer Jeff Ehrhart reached down and grabbed the yellowed stalk of corn and broke it open, revealing nothing inside.
"What are you going to do?" Ehrhart said Friday as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stood by his side and shook his head. "It just is what it is."
Walker toured Ehrhart's farm in Burlington and a dairy farm in Dodgeville on Friday. The Republican governor also got a 1,000-foot view of unusually barren fields from a Blackhawk helicopter that took him to both farms. Heat and dry conditions are pushing southern Wisconsin into the worst drought in more than 20 years.
After the tours, Walker met with key staff members and representatives from farm groups and others to assess what can be done to help producers losing their crops and faced with a shortage of feed for cattle and dairy cows, which are a major part of the state's $60 billion agriculture economy.
As he looked out the window of the helicopter, Walker saw fields would normally be bright green this time of year instead dotted with splotches of tan, yellow and brown. He said the ground looked like a big golf course with massive sand traps. He later commented that it looked like the green, tan and brown camouflage uniform worn by Wisconsin National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, who accompanied him on the trip.
All of southern Wisconsin is experiencing an extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That is the second-worst drought ranking and it's up from the previous week when the area was listed as severe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week rated 43 percent of the state's corn crop in poor or very poor condition. Pasture lands are even worse, with 63 percent poor or very poor.
Walker on Thursday asked the federal government to declare 23 counties a disaster area to free up loans and other assistance. Earlier this month, he declared a state of emergency for 42 counties, speeding up the issuance of permits for farmers to temporarily use stream or lake water for irrigation.
The last time that was done was in 2009, and five such permits were issued, Walker said. In less than two weeks this year, 29 have already been granted. And Walker is looking to other states for ideas on how to help. He mentioned Nebraska, which allows farmers to get permits to harvest areas along roads' right of ways as a way to supplement drought-stricken cattle feed.
"This isn't just a short-term issue," Walker said. "This has the potential to be a long-term issue."
The drought could have far-reaching effects, not only for crop producers but also for ancillary businesses that rely on them, such as the state's cheese industry, which could have less milk, and ethanol producers faced with a shortage of corn, Walker said.
Kyle Levetzow raises 300 dairy cows near Dodgeville. His alfalfa crop, which he planned to use to feed the cows, should be 2-feet tall by now. Instead, it's only inches off the ground. Corn on his land is yellowed and broken over, the victim of high winds two nights earlier.
"It's going to be a difficult year," he told Walker as they stood in the field of dilapidated corn. "We've got a long road ahead of us here."
About 70 percent of the state's crops are covered by some level of insurance against a drought, said state Insurance Commissioner Ted Nickel who rode in the helicopter with Walker. That covers about 2 million acres and $1.1 billion in possible losses. Nickel said given the extent of the damage he saw Friday, he would expect insurance claims to be filed soon.
Livestock producers need to be thinking ahead to how they are going to feed their animals in the winter if the food supply is lower than normal, said Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Ben Brancel.
He said conditions are similar to those seen in the 1988 drought that is still talked about as one of the state's worst.
"This year is going to replace 1988 in the minds of many farmers," Brancel said. "2012 is going to be the year many farmers refer back to as the one they'll never want to see repeated."