Seeds of Discontent

Kansas farmers say their weather-modification program causes rain. Colorado farmers say it causes trouble.

On the blue-dark evening of May 13, 1995, Craig Williams stood on the porch of the single-story ranch house he'd built twenty years ago. To the south, east and north, his wheatfields promised a bountiful year; the stalks were thigh-high already, their tips clustered tightly with beads of grain. As Williams looked north that night, toward the white grain elevator pinpointing the town center of Brandon, a plane moved into view, then a second.

"Not too many planes fly over here, particularly in front of a big storm," Williams says. "And there was a pretty good thunderhead there. We got the binoculars and, sure enough, we saw the generators on the wingtips. My dad and I sat and watched them seed the clouds for over an hour, flying back and forth, back and forth. Several hours later the hail came.

"When they started seeding, I had several thousand acres of pretty good wheat, about thirty bushels an acre, I'd figured. By the time it was over and the hail stopped, I had 4,000 acres of wheat, yielding maybe but four to six bushels an acre. Watching that storm that night I felt sick. It just made me sick."

Most farmers ruined by hail blame Mother Nature. Williams, who calculates he lost $350,000 worth of crops in the twenty minutes it took the hail to pound his wheat back into the soil last May, blames Kansas. Specifically, he holds Curtis Smith responsible.

Between April and September, Smith, a short, round man with Popeye forearms, a thinning tangle of hair and thick eyeglasses, sits in a cool, darkened room inside a cluster of small yellow prefabricated buildings just outside Lakin, Kansas, about forty miles to the southeast of Williams's farm. It is from here that Smith directs the Western Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 1's weather-modification program, the largest in the nation. His job is immense: to decrease the amount of hail that pummels western Kansas's farmers and, if he gets the opportunity, to increase the amount of rain they get.

Most of the weather that affects the twelve counties in the groundwater district moves from west to east, usually from southwest to northeast. For the past twenty years, Kansas's cloud seeders have applied for, and received, permission to fly ten to thirty-five miles into eastern Colorado to seed the clouds in preparation for their arrival in Kansas.

Recently, however, Smith has concluded that it is necessary to get an even larger jump on fast-moving weather patterns. So this year the district applied to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for a license to seed sixty miles inside the Colorado border. The flyovers would form a swath that cuts through the eastern halves of Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Prowers and Baca counties. The Colorado board is scheduled to rule on the request within days.

Kansas hasn't had much difficulty getting its seeding license in the past; there is no hard evidence that the Kansas pilots have a negative effect on Colorado's crops. But this year has been different. The severest drought in more than a decade has Colorado's farmers scrutinizing the sky possessively.

At a meeting seven weeks ago in Lamar, several dozen farmers and a handful of county commissioners representing Colorado's five southeastern-most counties angrily informed Smith they didn't want his planes messing with the weather over their heads. They had new concerns about the Kansas program, spurred by the drought: If seeding Colorado's clouds gave Kansas more rain, they theorized, wasn't it taking moisture away from this state? And wasn't it possible that decreasing hail there might increase it here?

Anticipating such questions, Smith paid for meteorologists and cloud physicists from around the country to attend the Lamar meeting. Patiently, with time left for questions, they explained how, scientifically, Colorado's farmers had nothing to fear from Kansas's seeders. The farmers were stubborn, though, and Smith has run out of patience.

"They choose to remain ignorant," he fumes. "Are they stupid? Can't they read? We bring in educated people, people who are experts in their field, and these farmers choose not to listen. They've got cement for brains. My firm belief is there's no hope for them."

Back in Kiowa County, Craig Williams remains calmly unconvinced--he knows what he knows. "I've farmed here right where I live for nineteen years," he says, pausing to spit some Copenhagen juice. "There was one hailstorm in the first sixteen years. Now I've had two crops hailed out in the last two years; I've seen them seed twice, and both times there was pretty good hail. Maybe it would've happened anyway.

"The thing is, you just don't know. We may be ignorant, and we may be asking them not to fly over for all the wrong reasons. But until they can prove it isn't doing us any harm, I guess I feel it's not the right thing to do."

Curtis Smith bustles into his office and, by way of explanation, points out the door to a tall cloud mounding to the southwest. It appears to have gathered itself out of nothing; the rest of the sky is hazy but completely cloudless. At 1:30 in the afternoon on the Kansas plains, the sun is blinding and the wind is a hot breath. "We've got to get up there," he says.

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