Drought has cost state's farmers and ranchers more than half billion, statistics show


Thursday, September 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The drought gripping most of Oklahoma has cost the state's farmers and ranchers $587.6 million, and that amount could go over $1 billion if conditions don't change quickly, an agriculture official said Wednesday.

State Agriculture Department statistics that showed the $587.6 million in estimated losses were released Wednesday at the first meeting of a joint legislative committee examining the Oklahoma drought.

The estimate does not include losses caused by fires or to poultry, timber, nurseries and other livestock. It also does not include regions where rainfall is considered adequate, such as northeast Oklahoma.

Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Charles Freeman said ranchers have incurred some $458 million in losses, including the extra costs that they must pay for hay, water, electricity and freight.

He said the dry conditions are resulting in underweight calves, which combined with the large volume of cattle on the market, has produced an estimated loss of $81.3 million for the state's cattlemen.

The drought has also cost farmers $129 million in lost hay, soybean, sorghum, cotton, milo and peanut crops, Freeman said.

Short-term soil conditions statewide have not been this dry since 1892, said Oklahoma Climatological Survey Director Kenneth C.

Crawford.

He said even with the rain last weekend, the state can only get out of the drought with above average amounts of rain in the coming months.

David Ligon, director of administrative services for the Agriculture Department, said the department has already spent its firefighting budget for the year and is requesting more than $3.3 million to meet forestry and firefighting needs.

The Agriculture Department's Forestry Services Division has battled about 500 fires covering 60,000 acres since Aug. 1, said the division's assistant director Patrick McDowell.

He said roughly $1 million has been spent just to combat widespread fires in the Arbuckle Mountains in southern Oklahoma.

The federal government is expected to pick up roughly 70 percent of that cost.

The Agriculture Department is recommending that the Legislature set up a $2 million contingency fund to allow the department to respond to fires and other emergencies more quickly.

Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta, the chairman of the legislative committee, said the panel may recommend that the state's Contingency Review Committee -- composed of the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore -- redirect more state funds into drought relief and firefighting programs before the Legislature meets again next year.

The panel, which meets again next week, may recommend a special session of the Legislature to deal with the issue, he said.