- Associated Press - Friday, July 11, 2014

ELKHART, Kan. (AP) - Despite standing in a field of dead wheat, Scott Shrauner doesn’t want to paint a bleak picture.

“This is tough country,” the 65-year-old Morton County farmer says matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t rain a lot.”

The average rainfall here, after all, is just 17 inches, and Morton County, once the epicenter of the Depression-era Dust Bowl, is typically stark and treeless - seemingly always thirsty for drink. The county seat, Elkhart, with 2,200 people, is remote. Situated in the far southwest Kansas corner, it is closer to three state capitols other than its own in Topeka.

Yet, despite the hardscrabble landscape, there is no denying that this area, along with much of Kansas, has been suffering from drought. And, in this county, drought conditions are extreme because Morton County hasn’t received normal rainfall in at least seven years, according to Shrauner’s data.

Through May, the area had received just 30 percent of normal precipitation. June rainfalls helped, pushing the deficit up to 75 percent of normal.

But showers didn’t come in time to save the dryland wheat crop, which on this late May day was short and sparse. Scott and his son, Reid Shrauner, said they didn’t expect to cut much, if any, dryland wheat this year.

A similar picture enveloped much of Kansas as the annual wheat harvest commenced this summer. Government officials are projecting this year’s wheat crop, marred by a fourth year of drought, as the worst since 1989, thanks largely to the drought, as well as hail and freeze damage.

Claims continue to come in on the 2014 wheat crop at Kansas’ Risk Management Agency. As of June 30, the USDA agency reported that Kansas wheat indemnities were at $29.95 million on 243,004 acres.

Now harvest has been hindered by too much rain.

Droughts have come and gone in Kansas - especially in this semi-arid southwest corner of the state.

In the 1930s, drought and winds created rolling walls of dust that spread across the Great Plains, causing nearly a quarter of southwest Kansas’ population to leave. The current multi-year drought has had its own impact on the land. Up until the recent rains, pastures were parched and ponds dry. Ranchers began to sell their cattle.

Moreover, no rain fell this past spring during the wheat’s growing season.

At Garden City’s K-State Agricultural Research Center, it was the driest January through May on record, with just 2.07 inches measured, according to research farm manager Jeff Elliott. At Hays’ K-State research center, it was the fourth driest, with the area receiving about 3 inches of moisture.

No, the current drought hasn’t meant the dire-straits scenes like those from the Great Depression, but there have been some glimpses into the 80-years-ago era.

“They didn’t have the money to leave,” said Morton County farmer Kenny Mitchell regarding his own ancestors who stuck it out through the Depression in this rough landscape.

Mitchell, born in 1939, said this spring was one of the driest periods he has ever experienced.

“It’s drier than I have ever seen it, and I’ve been here 70-some years,” he said, adding he wouldn’t be harvesting much dryland wheat this year.

Scott Shrauner’s grandfather, Harry Scott Shrauner, came to Morton County by wagon in 1908, back when water flowed through the Cimarron River. With little settlement in the area and tired of traveling back and forth 50 miles to Oklahoma for supplies, Harry considered leaving. But with a train coming through the area, residents formed the town of Elkhart in 1913 and Harry stayed.

By the 1930s, southwest Kansas was blowing dust, thanks to the large amount of prairie grass that was plowed up by homesteaders. From 1934 to 1937, Morton County didn’t receive 10 inches of rain.

“I don’t know how they survived,” Scott Shrauner said, adding that without many crops, his family butchered livestock and ate tumbleweeds. “They never saw irrigation water in their life.”

Today’s farming practices are better or the current drought could have been worse. The ground is tied down to grasslands, CRP and no-till acres, Scott Shrauner said.

In mid-June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked the Kansas wheat crop as 63 percent poor or very poor and only 11 percent good to excellent.

Every bushel is significant in Kansas, the nation’s largest producer of hard red winter wheat. It’s the state’s top agricultural export, valued at more than $1.55 billion in 2011.

While recent rains have been a blessing, more is needed, said Mary Knapp, service climatologist with the Kansas State University Weather Data Library.

Knapp said the southwestern quarter of Kansas is still far behind after such a lengthy dry spell. Through late June, Haskell County had only received just 38 percent of normal rainfall for the year. Ness City was at 54 percent of normal.

John Holman, an agronomist with Kansas State Research and Extension based in Garden City, said there is still hope for an El Nino this fall. An El Nino is a warming of the water in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which could create rainfall as far away as Kansas.

Holman, however, said it typically creates only a 20 percent variability of the climate in Kansas.

“It is not a huge driver of the water, but having said that, the climatologists say that every major drought, the 1930s, the 1950s, every major drought we have had has been broken by an El Nino,” he said.

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