HOLMESVILLE, Neb. -- With grasshoppers dancing on his sun-baked land, Terry Acton knew he was in trouble. The wheat fields that should be tall enough to tickle his chest didn't reach his knees.
The soil that should be soft as a sponge was hard as concrete.
And the harvest he should be planning was canceled -- for lack of rain.
''Every day you're out here trying to figure out how to make something out of nothing,'' says Acton, his boots caked with dust, his green seed cap matted with sweat on a cloudless 92-degree spring day. ''This is the worst year I've ever seen.''
It's only June, but the Drought of 2000 already is gripping patches of the Midwest, Southeast and West. Streams and ponds are running dry, crops are withering, forests are burning, fish are dying, cattle and even alligators are desperate for water.
Century-old records are falling: Parts of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana have edged close to or posted their driest six months (through May) since 1895, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For parts of Iowa, Texas, Nebraska and Missouri, the same is true for an 11-month period.
In Alabama, tomatoes are rotting, corn is burning up. In South Carolina, canoe trips have been halted in one state park because there isn't enough water. In Colorado, wildfires have raged across thousands of acres.
And here in the southeast corner of Nebraska, June is like August, with five 95-degree-plus days in the first half of this month, hot enough to make cattle lose their appetite.
If the heat is ever-present, rain is anything but. For many farmers around here, the last big storm is a wistful memory -- dating back 10 months.
''I don't even bother to look at the fields anymore,'' says Arnold Baehr, a 59-year-old farmer who has tilled the soil for 33 years in the hamlet of Blue Springs. ''It's too upsetting to go out and see what's gone already.''
''Drought is part of the cycle,'' he adds, ''but when it comes you're never ready for it.''
Unlike most natural disasters, droughts aren't always visible -- at least, not at first.
''If you go into an area that has experienced a tornado or flood ... people see the hardship,'' says Don Wilhite, director of the drought center. ''A drought not only creeps up on you, but we won't know the true impact until we harvest the crop.''
But farmers here already see early trouble signs: Corn has a blue-green tint, its leaves are curled like layers of an onion. Wheat stands about 18 inches, instead of 4 feet, and is pale yellow, instead of amber.
And a foot below in the soil, there's the real problem: dry gray dirt, gritty as sand. The moisture reserve that builds up from winter snow and rain was only one-third to one-fourth the usual amount this year, and it's almost gone, says Paul Hay, an extension agent in Gage County in southeast Nebraska.
''It's like a town trying to operate without a water tank,'' he says.
Southeast Nebraska usually gets up to 23 inches of rain from April to September, but so far has received 4-5 inches.
Hay says it would have to rain an inch about every three or four days to make up for this long dry stretch-- and that's very unlikely.
''To think we can get through this summer and get this crop -- I don't think it's possible,'' he says, pointing to a field of corn with paper-like stalks. ''I think it's lost.''
Crop insurance and federal assistance will compensate growers for some losses, but Hay says ''it's just about enough to cover expenses. It's not going to cover family living.''
Drought is not just a farmer's heartache. It's a national headache that ripples through the economy, from the corner grocery to commodity markets, from a small town's water supply to a big city's tourism.
On average, drought costs the U.S. economy about $7 billion to $9 billion a year, Wilhite says. In 1988, when there was a severe dry spell across the nation, it was $39 billion, he adds.
It's too early to know how severe and widespread this drought will be, but conditions in many states already are grim:
-- In Georgia, the third straight year of extremely dry weather has threatened endangered mollusks and aquatic life, depleted streams and reduced rivers to record lows. Alligators will be on the move -- small ones that hang out in shallow holes will seek deeper water.
Tough water-use restrictions have been imposed throughout the state. And farmers are worried limits will be imposed on water pumped from deep aquifers for irrigation systems.
''The mood is the worst I've seen in the farming community,'' says Kemp Willis, a 41-year-old southwest Georgia peanut and cotton grower. ''You don't hear anybody talking about next year. It's just trying to get through this year.''
-- In Florida, the drought has produced sinkholes, crop disasters and wildfires that have burned nearly 140,000 acres this year. Among the most volatile areas is the southwest part of the state, where there have been more than 250 fires.
''It's frustrating,'' says James Rotz, a wild-land firefighter who works around Fort Myers and Naples, where rainfall is 18 inches short of its annual average.
Some forestry firefighters have found their work increasingly dangerous because vegetation contains natural chemicals once used to make torches and fuels, so if winds are strong, flames can quickly surround them without allowing an escape route.
''Everybody is trying to spend some time with their wives and their kids,'' Rotz says. ''When you have these drought conditions, you don't know if you're going to be home that night or if you are ever going to be home again.''
Storms are bringing rain, but not enough to douse blazes started by lightning. In early June, 16 fires broke out in 15 minutes from lightning in a single storm, Rotz says.
''We're running back and forth like a chicken without a head trying to keep up with it,'' says Rotz, who worked 22 straight days. ''Needless to say we are a little exhausted.''
-- In Montana, the snowpack is all but gone from the mountains, some reservoirs are running short and pastures are brown, despite recent rains and cooler temperatures that brought some relief.
Marjorie and Jim Pribyl shipped half of their cattle to South Dakota and Iowa this spring because they had no pasture and couldn't find any to rent in Montana.
''It's not much fun this year,'' Jim Pribyl says. ''It's a year of survival.''
But the drought has been something of a boon to Doug Atkins. Even though his springs are drying up, he still found a market for irrigated hay he advertised on the Internet.
''Gosh, people are calling almost all the time,'' says Atkins, who expects to sell about 1,000 tons.
-- In Missouri, cold water hatcheries, cows and small towns are suffering. The hardest-hit area is a 27-county region across the northern border of the state.
In the town of Milan, officials fear their water supply to the community of 2,000 could be all but dried up by October without additional rain to feed creeks and lakes.
''We've been praying for rain for a long time,'' says Mayor David Wilson.
-- In Texas, goat and sheep producers are selling off their herds and state agriculture officials say wheat production is down 42 percent.
In West Texas, up to three inches of precipitation fell in early June but it wasn't enough to break the drought.
Since 1996, droughts have cost Texas about $4.2 billion in agricultural losses, and that doesn't include the $361 million already racked up this year, according to state officials.
Kent Nix got enough rain to gamble on replanting his cotton crop on 2,400 acres near the town of Lamesa.
''When you've had your mind set for so long to deal with the drought and it suddenly rains, it causes a lot of people to be confused about which way to go,'' Nix says. ''There's a lot of expense involved in replanting. I was willing to take the risk.''
In Nebraska, Terry Acton won't harvest wheat this summer.
He knew he'd get only about 20 percent of his typical 40 bushels an acre, so he cut it up to feed to his cows.
He still has corn and beans on his 1,100 acres, but is hauling water for his livestock because ponds have dried up on the pastures.
The 36-year-old farmer has crop insurance, but says it will only cover his expenses.
''What am I supposed to live on?'' he asks in frustration, as he pulls a stunted wheat stalk from the hardened ground. ''What am I going to pay the taxes with? There's no gravy train.''
Gov. Mike Johanns recently declared a state of emergency in drought-stricken areas so the state can start using more than $2 million in emergency relief funds.
Hay, the extension adviser, says it will take a couple of months of normal rainfall before farmers can even begin to bounce back.
But rebound they will.
''We'll make it through,'' he says. ''We'll get the expenses covered. Part of the reason is we've weeded out so many people already. If you weren't a pretty good farmer or you're not willing to suffer like crazy, you wouldn't be out here. These people have been beat up a long time. They're survivors.''
On the Net:
National Drought Mitigation Center: http://enso.unl.edu/ndmc
Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: http://www.drought.noaa.gov
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Sharon Cohen is the Midwest regional reporter based in Chicago. Contributing to this report: AP writers Elliott Minor in Albany, Ga; Vickie Chachere in Tampa, Fla.; Tom Laceky in Helena, Mont.; Pam Easton in Lubbock, Texas; and Paul Sloca in Kansas City, Mo.
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