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Hope comes to pocket of drought in southeast

Kenneth Fuchs, of rural Marty, speaks last week about the drought while in Wagner. Though drought conditions have generally improved in South Dakota, there's a pocket in southeast South Dakota where conditions were especially bad last summer and the drought was still rated as severe as of last week. (Jordan Steffen/Republic)

AVON -- Cautious optimism -- that's the mood of farmers and ranchers in southern Bon Homme and Charles Mix counties after recent spring rains.

May and early June rains were heaviest in the northern parts of the counties, with lesser amounts falling in the southerly sections.

Any rain is an improvement over 2012, said Roger Berndt, 59, manager of the Farmers Coop Elevator Co. in Avon, who figures his area received 6 to 9.25 inches of moisture in the past five weeks -- with 1.75 to 2.25 inches of that amount falling just last weekend.

"How do you even compare when we got 5 inches of rain in the previous 12 months?" he said. The typical average annual moisture for the area is 15 to 17 inches, he estimated.

"We didn't have crops in 2012," Berndt said. "We handled almost 2 million less bushels of grain last year than we did the previous three years. It's taken a toll."

State Climatologist Dennis Todey said historical records show annual moisture levels in the Avon area around 22 inches, but Berndt's estimate of rainfall amounts would probably hold for the typical growing season.

The weekend rainfall in southern parts of South Dakota was significant, Todey said, and will likely improve the area's drought status when the U.S. Drought Monitor Map is released today. The version of the map released last week showed that areas of southern Charles Mix and Bon Homme counties were in the last remaining strip of "severe" drought in the eastern half of the state. "Severe" is below only "extreme" and "exceptional" on a five-level drought scale.

Berndt said a repeat of 2012 would be catastrophic, but survivable. A third year would see businesses like his shutting their doors.

Crop insurance kept most producers solvent in 2012, Berndt said, but the drought was hardest on livestock producers who were forced to pay as much as $300 a ton for hay to feed their cattle.

A more localized concern has been that lawns, which typically go dormant in mild drought, were killed off in 2012.

To prove his point, Berndt pulled out an 11-by-14 photo of the "desert" of grass surrounding his own farm. He will have to spray off the thriving weeds that remain and re-plant.

No one recalls a year as bad in recent memory, Berndt said.

"Last year we had 90-degree temperatures in March," he added. This year's cooler spring is helping to preserve the moisture that has fallen.

Farther west in Dante, Mike Van Duysen, 21, shop manager at Farmers Elevator, said farmers had been frustrated, until recently, that the biggest rainfalls seemed to veer off to other areas.

Farmers have been in a lot better mood after recent rains, he said.

"Before that, it's been a hit-and-miss kind of deal."

In the past few weeks, his area has had about 7 inches of rain.

Other areas to the west and south received about 4 to 5 inches, and Pickstown, about 20 miles west, got about 5 inches, Van Duysen said, noting that 1.5 to 2 inches of those rainfall amounts arrived over the past weekend.

"It's good, but we'll take as much as we can get," he said. "We're still behind."

"It's getting better -- somewhat," agreed Dick Rysavy, 72, Dante's mayor for the past 27 years. He jokes that no one else will take the job.

"We're not out of this drought yet, but if we get some ample rains it will help," he said.

Rysavy said last week that the rains that fell on Dante in May weren't the drenchers other areas have seen, but they've been regular and timely.

In Wagner, Jeff Doom, 52, president of Wagner Building Supply, said recent rains have raised the spirits of his customers considerably.

"They were tentative three weeks ago -- and I don't want to go so far as to say folks have forgotten the drought -- but it's a new day," he said.

Doom said his business hasn't suffered greatly from the drought because his farm customers used insurance wisely to mitigate losses.

"But I've gotten friendly warnings," he said with a laugh. "They've told me, 'If we get another drought, you will feel our pain.' " Still, Doom said, the drought made him nervous. He shudders to think what could happen. "If this had gone two or three years ... Oh boy," he said.

Two other area residents were interviewed outside Boom's Drive-In, in Wagner, where they stopped for lunch.

Kenneth Fuchs, 66, of rural Marty, said the farmer who rented his acreage in 2012 managed a poor soybean crop.

"Maybe 20 bushels an acre -- it wasn't very good -- and I don't think some made that much. We could use more rain."

The drought was particularly hard on trees, Fuchs said, echoing a complaint made by others.

"I've got two big spruce trees in my yard that my parents planted 40 years ago and I might lose them."

Tom Varilek, 64, who raises cattle eight miles south of Geddes, said recent rains finally allowed him to move his cows out of the feedyard to pasture.

"We're a month behind putting cows out," he said. "If it keeps raining we'll be in good shape, but we have to build up some reserves on our feed pile again -- we used it up last year."

Even though last year's drought caused him to trim his herds by 20 percent, Varilek isn't looking for any government help.

"You start getting into that stuff and that's a lot of extra paperwork. You can't rely on insurance and somebody to give you a hand up," he said.


"Sure," he said. "I've been in this business all my life. If I'm not optimistic, I'm a fool."