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Farmers, state leaders worry about a drought affecting 85% of Missouri counties

Soy is harvested from Mark Lehenbauer's farm in Palmyra, Missouri in 2020.
Missouri Dept. of Agriculture
via Flickr
Missouri farmers say they are worried a drought this early in the year will hurt their crop yields come harvest season.

Nearly 4 million Missourians are living in areas with moderate to extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Last week, Gov. Mike Parson issued an executive order declaring an alert for 60 counties in the state. Now, the number is more than 70.

In addition to asking state agencies to work together to address the issue, the order required reactivation of the Drought Assessment Committee, which meets whenever the state is in a drought.

“This has been the driest April and May statewide in Missouri since 1988,” said Dru Buntin, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, at the committee’s first meeting on Wednesday.

With stunted crop growth and dwindling water and hay supply for livestock, the dry conditions mostly affect the state’s agriculture. At the meeting, committee members discussed potential ways to help farmers, including bulk water purchases and expansion of livestock grazing areas.

Parson is expected to hear the committee’s recommendations by Friday.

“We have to keep everybody in mind … we don’t need to lose any segment of Missouri agriculture,” said Mark Lehenbauer, a crop and livestock farmer in Palmyra. Lehenbauer’s farm sits in Marion County, which is currently designated a severe drought area.

He said he hopes the committee will look for ways to keep every type of Missouri farm sustainable.

“The row crop farmer needs a livestock farmer. And a livestock farmer needs the row crop farmer,” Lehenbauer said. “We need that diversity.”

Lehenbauer hasn’t seen significant rainfall since May 10. He said if it doesn’t rain soon, he may run out of water for his cattle, and his corn and soybean crops will continue to be stressed.

“We need to pray for rain,” he said.

Mark Lehenbauer lifts hay on his farm in Palmyra, Missouri in April 2022.
Ryan Siegel
Missouri Soybean Association
Mark Lehenbauer lifts hay on his farm in Palmyra, Missouri, in April 2022. Lehenbauer said hay is one of the crops underperforming because of the drought.

According to the National Weather Service in St. Louis, the drought has escalated over the past two weeks because the region lacks southern winds that transport moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.

“Northeast winds in general are pretty dry,” said meteorologist Jayson Gosselin. “We’ve been kind of in [a] persistent east, northeasterly flow. And so we’ve had dry air at the surface.”

Gosselin said rainfall isn’t widespread this time of year. Even though St. Louis saw rain on Wednesday, other parts of the region are still feeling the drought.

“We get those heavy rainfalls with those individual storms or clusters of storms. And other areas don’t,” he said. “You can have a lot of variability in exactly who gets how much rain and where.”

Wentzville asks residents to conserve

In response to dry conditions and a heavy increase in lawn irrigation, Wentzville issued a voluntary Water Conservation Declaration on Monday.

The declaration encourages residents to follow a split watering schedule in which even-numbered addresses water their lawns on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and odd-numbered addresses on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.

Residents are also allowed 30 minutes per day to spot water dry patches and plants.

Because Wentzville collects water from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, it’s rare to see drought affect the supply. But increased reliance on rivers could place stress on the city’s system.

“We could get ourselves into a situation where the pipes from the river aren’t big enough to carry all the water that would be needed to keep everybody’s grass green,” said Susan Spiegel, director of public works for Wentzville.

Spiegel said the goal of the declaration is to teach residents to manage dormant lawns if the current weather pattern continues.

It will go into effect Monday and remain through Sept. 5 if drought conditions do not change.

Lilley Halloran was a Summer '23 News Intern at St. Louis Public Radio. She is studying Journalism and Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri.