For Wayne Boschert and his wife, the 2012 drought has meant no room for luxury. They have canceled the trip to St. Martin that they take every January. Dilip Vishwanat for The New York Times

BUTLER, Missouri – They have canceled vacations. Their children are forgoing out-of-state colleges for cheaper ones close to home. They are delaying doctor’s visits, selling off land handed down through generations and resisting luxuries like new smartphones.

And then there is the stress — sleepless nights, grumpiness and, in one extreme case, seizures.

Lost amid the withered crops, dehydrated cattle and depleted ponds that have come to symbolize the country’s most widespread drought in decades has been the toll on families whose livelihoods depend on farming.

Although most are not in danger of losing their homes or going hungry, the drought is threatening the way of life in rural America.

“You probably can’t print our mood,” said Dallis Basel, a sheep rancher in western South Dakota who sold off half of his herd because of the high feed prices caused by the drought. “It’s been kind of depressed. Like the wife says, she can’t drink enough to dull the pain of selling all the sheep.”

Adding to the uncertainty has been Congress’s failure to pass a farm bill; the previous version expired on Sunday. Although crop farmers will still get their insurance payments, livestock producers are now without an equivalent safety net. While lawmakers are expected to pass a farm bill after the November election, that might be too late for livestock producers, several of whom said they were losing tens of thousands of dollars a week because they were paying more to feed their animals than they were getting when they sold them.

In the short term, the agriculture industry might appear healthy — the government estimates that net farm income will top $122 billion this year, the highest level since 1973. But much of the financial impact of the crisis will be felt next year, when farmers start realizing their diminished revenue.

Despite the dire outlook, interviews with nearly three dozen farmers in the middle of the country revealed a curious sense of calm.

“My granddad wasn’t a worrier, my dad wasn’t a worrier, I’m not either,” said Kent Woolfolk, 56, a cattle farmer in southwestern Kansas. “You got to be concerned, but if you dwell on it, it’s just going to eat you up.”

He added: “It will rain. It always has.”

Positive outlook aside, the farmers are still plotting their survival, asking their banks for more money or adjusted loan terms, tapping the equity in their land and scaling back their spending at home.

“They say, ‘What are my alternatives?’ ” said R. Warren Graeff, the agricultural banking market manager with PNC. “ ‘What things do I have to take into consideration to survive?’ ”

For Carl Bettels, one of those things might include returning to a nonfarming job. Mr. Bettels, 57, had figured that another three years working at Walmart would have given him enough savings to focus comfortably on farming here in western Missouri for the rest of his life. But Walmart laid him off last October, and because of the drought, it seems as though his farm income will not be enough to sustain his family. Anticipating a $40,000 drop in earnings this year, he and his wife have been forced to dip into a retirement fund to pay their daughter’s college expenses.

On a recent morning, Mr. Bettels stood on his 560 acres, where he has about 130 cows as well as crops that produced a quarter of their normal yields this year, and reflected on his life as the grass of his pasture crunched underfoot, a brisk wind blew and a chorus of bugs chirped.

“I like this out here,” said Mr. Bettels, a fourth-generation farmer. “I’ve done it for so long, it’s a part of me.”

Mr. Bettels’s wife, Theresa, who works at a local school, said that although she sometimes wished that they had a steadier income, she understood that this was her husband’s passion. But that patience may not last forever.

“If it’s doing this for the next two years, I can’t see us being able to keep going,” she said.

Nearly two-thirds of the continental United States is in moderate to exceptional drought, according to the government, the most widespread dryness in five and a half decades. The drought has gradually expanded to leave half of the nation’s corn in poor to very poor condition. A government survey last month estimated national average yields of 122.8 bushels of corn per acre, the lowest in more than 15 years, while soybean yields are expected to drop by about 15 percent from last year.

The diminished supply has meant skyrocketing prices, which are good for whatever crops the farmers can collect on but not so good for livestock farmers who must buy the crops to feed their animals.

Dawn and John Habeck’s dairy farm in South Dakota, already dwindling because of changes in the region’s dairy industry, has been pushed to the brink of failure by the drought. Even though they sold all but 30 of their 350 cows last year, they cannot afford to feed the remainder because prices have increased fivefold this year, Ms. Habeck said. The $800,000 they made from selling their cows is quickly running out. They plan to sell two-thirds of the land that has been not only their business but also their pleasure over the years — they have hiked, camped and ridden horses with their four daughters on their land.

“We’re starting over again,” Ms. Habeck said. “Even though we worked seven days a week — 15 to 20 hours a day some days — it feels like for nothing.”

The drought’s effects trickle down to children. One of her daughters was having seizures from stress, Ms. Habeck said. […]

Drought Leaves Cracks in Way of Life



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