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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007 01:39 pm

Looking for lessons in a drought

Southern Illinois has been so dry, it makes you think

Untitled Document It was already dry in southern Illinois early this summer when I went down for my class reunion. As a group of us from the Mount Vernon Township High School class of 1967 gathered for lunch before the festivities, somebody said that they’d heard that David’s mother had recently died. She had been a favorite of us all, so we shared memories of the mom we’d nicknamed, for her housedress, “Muu-muu.” I remembered her rye bread, fresh out of the oven; Steve remembered her conga bars and the crazy times we’d had at her house. I regretted that I hadn’t gotten down to Missouri to see her in the nursing home as I’d intended to do. At the party, when I saw David I told him that I was sorry to hear that his mom had passed away. “No, she’s fine,” he said. “I went by to visit her this morning and told her I’d be seeing you all. She said the hole you guys put in her ceiling with a broomstick is still there. I said, ‘Mom, you haven’t lived in that house in 10 years.’ ”
It hasn’t rained since then in Jefferson County. It’s been dry here in central Illinois, where the drought is rated as moderate. But southern Illinois south of Effingham is in a severe drought, just a step above Kentucky, where it is categorized as extreme. “Our county’s burnt up,” says Sharon Frick, executive director of the Jefferson County Farm Service Agency. The drought hasn’t made much news, partly because northern Illinois, where most of the corn and people are, has had excessive rain, even flooding. “Nobody considers us part of the farming community anyway,” says Frick. “Down here, our double-crop beans aren’t even above the wheat stubble.” Even in southern Illinois, where most take bad news in stride, some are beginning to think that this event is of historic proportions. “It’s the worst I can remember, especially with it going into September like this,” says an 80-year-old who’s been farming in that area nearly all his life. “Our farmers are crying,” says Dennis Epplin, extension crop-systems educator in Jefferson County. He says that most of the corn got in early, so it will make a crop, though yields may be down by 40 percent on account of the drought. But soybeans are in trouble, and several farmers have called Epplin for advice on baling the plants like hay for livestock.
At my family’s farm, near Bluford, where we raise Angus cattle, the Easter frost had already stunted the hay crop, and little rain meant no second cutting this year. Because the pastures are brown, we’re already feeding what little hay we had for winter. “There is absolutely no forage left,” says Tom Smith, manager of Farraway Farm. In the absence of grass he’s feeding the herd corn gluten, a byproduct of ethanol made in Decatur. The farmer who cash-rents our crop ground planted his beans the first week of May, then got no rain till the first week of July and only two-tenths of an inch since then. He’s turned in his beans to insurance as a total loss, so this week we’ll put cows in the bean fields to graze what’s there. We’re planning to bale stalks after the corn is out, another emergency measure. Ours is among the 100 farms in the county this year that have gotten permission to graze or bale grass that’s in the conservation reserve program; a normal year might see 10 applications to use CRP acreage in exchange for a small decrease in the payment. Farmers and livestock producers learn that there are ways to get by, but I wonder what it means. I’m tempted to blame it on George W. Bush, like everything else, but that seems too simplistic. It’s arrogant to give humans too much responsibility for the weather, but you can’t help but wonder how much of this is a result of global warming and the greenhouse effect, which is said to worsen both floods and drought. I hope that at least the dry summer will cause some people to question the wisdom of the ethanol plant proposed for Jefferson County and the plan to take 1.5 million gallons of water a day from Rend Lake to feed it. Grief, loss, even the prospect of loss, remind us of what’s important. A friend says that he and his wife stopped quarreling the moment they found out that she had cancer. Drought will make us more thankful for the rain when it comes. And when those southern Illinois hills turn green again, they’ll be more beautiful than ever. I’ve been meaning for a long time to get better acquainted with the stars that are always bright over the farm, so I’ve spent more time these cloudless nights taking in the country sky, reflecting on learning to appreciate what you have while you have it. That reminds me — I need to get down to Missouri to see Muu-muu before too long.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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