Features

Only God brings rain

National | Modern "Dust Bowl" conditions turn cattlemen to prayer

Issue: "Vouching for Vouchers," Aug. 17, 1996

Grant Boice isn't the only man with a wide-brim Resistol cowboy hat in the Phoenix airport; he's just the only one who looks as if he belongs in one. It's as battered as his tooled--leather briefcase and as authentic as his slow, throaty voice. And he knows how to wear his hat; he takes it off indoors out of respect for the ladies, he says, and he puts it on out--of--doors out of respect for the merciless Arizona sun. That sun-and for the past five years, the drought it seems to fuel-has baked lines into Mr. Boice's face as deep as the cracks in the parched land that can no longer sustain his cattle.

Mr. Boice, who also serves as executive director of the Arizona National Stock Show, is on his way to Dallas for a cattle herd managers' meeting. He's not expecting to hear much good news; cattle prices are down, feed prices are up, and he's watching lifelong friends go bankrupt as the drought drags on. Financially, this is the worst disaster in Texas' history, and Mr. Boice will be meeting with the men who have been hit the hardest.

He attends several of these kinds of meetings each year, he says, and more often these days, the meetings are opened with prayer. Drought is a good, if painful, reminder that even with all the agricultural technology on his side, man can't make it without God's help.

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"The drought won't last forever, but then it becomes a matter of who can last," Mr. Boice says. "The cows don't have anything to graze on, so we have to either feed or sell them off. And when you start selling off your mama cows, that's going to cut your calf crop next year even if the drought breaks."

He's been monitoring the cattle auctions throughout the Southwest, he says, and he's watched as more and more pregnant cows have been sent to slaughterhouses. The auctioned steers-the cash crop in this business-are getting lighter and lighter. Meanwhile, grain reserves are dwindling, which means feed prices won't come down any time soon.

He absently traces the weave of the straw in his hat with his finger. "I have better than 1,000 head myself, and I'll be selling soon."

Huge portions of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah have watched the skies pour forth precious little rain for five years now.

"It's been bad," says meteorologist Mike Foster, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. "I can rattle all sorts of numbers at you. It's one of the worst on record; seventh driest since we started measuring rainfall in 1898. Some places it's worse than the Dust Bowl days."

Cattle ranchers are the first victims of the drought, but not the only victims.

"This is a $4 billion--a--year industry in Texas," says that state's Agricultural Commissioner Rick Perry. "The turmoil this industry is going through is causing a liquidation of historic proportions."

As of July, Mr. Perry's estimates of damage done to the state were at $2.4 billion. That could rise as high as $6.5 billion, he says. Already, this drought ranks as the state's worse natural disaster, topping 1983's hit by Hurricane Alicia, which cost about $3 billion.

And consumers have a stake in the drought: dairy prices are rising. In California, feed costs have risen 62 percent in the last year, forcing many dairy farmers to thin the herds. That means less milk on the market, produced at significantly greater cost. Nationwide, that will likely work out to a hike of 5 to 10 cents per gallon of milk. Ice cream, cheese, and butter will register the biggest increases.

And because the winter wheat crop was severely hit by the drought, consumers are starting to see higher bread prices-up as much as 40 percent. In Spartanburg, S.C., for example, a loaf of Sunbeam bread costs $1.63, up from $1.19 last year.

The Kansas winter wheat crop was down by well more than half; Bob Dole's home state usually produces between 360 million and 420 million bushels of wheat per year; this year, the total will be 185 million bushels-or less.

A drought is a disaster of attrition. Unlike other natural disasters, it's hard to pin a time and date on when a drought begins. The rain just doesn't come. Arizona cattleman Boice says watching the drought come on was a little like gambling away the rent money. "You just watched it get worse and worse, and you thought, maybe it will rain tomorrow, maybe it will rain the next day."

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