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Drought-Stricken Plains Farmers 'Giddy' Over Heavy Snow

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Two rapid-fire snowstorms belted Kansas with more than 2 feet of snow this week. They caused thousands of accidents and all kinds of hardships — but they also produced very broad smiles from some quarters.

That's because in a place as dry as Kansas has been lately, a blizzard can be a blessing for farmers and ranchers.

Imagine that your job is taking care of some 450 cows and almost half of them have either just given birth or are about to — all out in a pasture that has seen 2 feet of snow fall in less than two weeks.

One thing you need is an old ax, like the one farmer Kirk Sours carries down to a frozen pond. He's covered in layers of heavy canvas work clothes, with a big gray mustache and cowboy hat to match.

"Keeping the ponds open so they have something to drink. This pond's in pretty decent shape," he says. "I've got 16 dry ponds on the ranch."

Snow And No Grass Means Pricey Hay

The drought here, near Tonganoxie, Kan., started last spring and hasn't let up. Drought had baked the soil here to bone-dry dust.

"Our pastures here, a lot of it, looks dead when the snow's gone," Sours says.

So Sours has been forced to buy scarce and very expensive hay. And now, with snow covering what grass there is — and the cows rapidly turning out other little mouths to feed — he's using much more.

"[I] like to keep a lot of extra hay out, to give them a dry place to lay, during the night," Sours says. "And especially if they want to lay down and have a baby sometime, they've got a nice dry place to do it. It gets expensive, yeah."

But for all this, Sours is pretty sweet on the snow. That's because the snowmelt will start to quench these dry pastures. "It makes for a little harder work, but in scope of the drought, man, we're just almost giddy about having this snow," he says.

And if you think Sours is happy with the weather, you should call a Kansas wheat farmer out west, where the drought is now entering its third year.

"I was beginning to wonder ... if it could rain," says Scott Van Allen. He hails from Kansas' Sumner County, which proudly boasts that it's the "Wheat Capital of the World."

'I'd Much Rather Have Mud Than Dust'

The snows brought the first real moisture to Van Allen's wheat crop since he planted it last fall.

"This was the first time I haven't minded going out and shoveling my sidewalks off," Van Allen says. "I had a smile the whole time I was doing it."

Jim Shroyer, a wheat expert at Kansas State University, says he is asked all the time whether the storms broke the drought. "No!" he answers. "But it sure as heck helps. It's better than a sharp poke in the eye."

Shroyer says it's been so dry for so long that it would take 8 feet of snow to bring soil back to normal in western Kansas — where "normal" is pretty dry. So the snow wasn't so much a lifesaver for the wheat crop as a stay of execution.

"This wheat crop is going to be going hand to mouth, from this point on," Shroyer says.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the tires on Sours' huge four-wheel drive pickup are slipping a little. "Yeah, when you get this truck stuck, you're stuck," he says. The snow is melting now, and this ranch is going to get very messy.

"I have learned one thing over the last 35 years of doing this," Sours says. "That you don't cuss the mud. I'd much rather have mud than dust."

And for now, after the snow melts in Kansas, mud it is. Next month? Maybe green.

Frank Morris reports for Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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