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Nation & World

For Farmers In The Western U.S., Drought Inflicts Harsh Realities

NOEL KING, HOST:

Big parts of the western United States are in the middle of a drought that is only expected to get worse this summer. Farmers in particular are having a hard time. Anna King of the Northwest News Network reports that some are selling their cattle and watching their crops fail.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: Nicole Berg's wheat is so short and sparse, she doesn't think the combine can reach it without eating rocks.

NICOLE BERG: Combines don't like dirt and rocks at all (laughter). They don't like it. They don't like to eat them (laughter). They get indigestion (laughter).

A KING: Berg is a dryland wheat farmer in the sweeping Horse Heaven Hills of southeast Washington state. She plucks out one head amid a sea of wheat.

BERG: See how the wheat head is curled like that. And then you break into it. And you might have some berries down here, but this will be empty. It's all empty. There's no wheat inside the wheat head.

A KING: The Bergs aren't the only ones suffering. The region is bone dry from near the Canadian border clear to the edge of Nevada. And the drought is spreading west over the Cascades. Jeff Marti is a drought expert for the Washington State Department of Ecology. He says despite good snowpack, it hasn't been this dry since the 1920s.

JEFF MARTI: You know, it's the story of the irrigation haves and the irrigation have-nots, meaning those folks who get their water from rivers or storage are probably going to be fine for their irrigation needs. But the dryland users and the folks that have cattle that depend on forage on the rangelands, they may be more challenged.

A KING: Looking ahead, Marti says the warming climate may mean more rain for the Northwest but also much less snowpack that melts sooner. That could stress water supplies even more. This spring, it's also been windy here, further drying out the landscape like a blow dryer. On the east end of the Columbia River Gorge, cattle rancher Gary Hess is having a hard time, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

A KING: He recently sold 70 mother cows with calves at their sides to another operator out of Wyoming. They had many more good calves in them and he hated to see them go, but he has no grass to keep them.

GARY HESS: When you have to sell younger cows, that's a disappointment. But that's something we had to do with the kind of weather we had the last couple of years and the drought and the lack of feed, lack of water. We were just finding we had to cut back.

A KING: Hess says it's hard to lose animals and bloodlines he's worked so hard to build up. His McBride Hereford ranch is now six generations old. He figures it could take him up to a decade to build his herd back up without going into debt. Hess sits in his muddy pickup and his eyes start to well up a bit.

HESS: It’s just something we had to do.

A KING: Hess and other Northwest ranchers say they don't have time to dwell on the trucked-off cattle or lost crops. They're busy applying for federal disaster aid, and they're also keeping an eye out for the coming wildfires - always a concern but expect it to be worse because of this year's terrible drought.

For NPR News, I'm Anna King outside of Alderdale, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRO'S "LEVEL 2 SMALL BATS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.