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Farmers in Western Tennessee hit hard by extreme drought

A drought is now gripping more than half of the nation, with the latest U.S. Drought Monitor showing some of the worst areas are expanding. In Tennessee, crops are dying and families are struggling to face the losses. NBC's Thanh Truong reports.

By Thanh Truong, NBC News

BRIGHTON, TENN. -- Times are tough in Tennessee. David McDaniel and his twins look out on their farm fields and see row upon row of withering crops.

"It's hard to know before we harvest but it's going to be at least a 50 percent loss, maybe more," said McDaniel, who still owes tens of thousands of dollars for farm equipment and land. The crops would have helped his family stay out of debt.


Thursday’s Drought Monitor report shows “widespread intensification” in the central U.S.  Throughout the country areas in the worst drought categories rose by 50 percent.  And in parts of western Tennessee, the drought is categorized as either "extreme" or "severe."

And as farmer Clay Kelley explained, the anticipated crop loss is felt by the entire community.

"When folks get a good crop, everybody gets a new pickup truck. There's not going to be many new pickup trucks running this year," he said.

As times get tougher farmers are more likely to hold on to what they have than buy new vehicles. 

"Truck sales are about 50 percent of our business and I would say right now, the way things are going, we are probably looking at a 20 percent decrease in sales towards the fall," said Daniel Allen, sales manager at Country Chevrolet in Brighton, Tenn.

The potential financial losses are mounting, but so is something less visible: stress. David McDaniel's wife, Lisa McDaniel, sees the weight of worry on her husband. As a farmer’s wife she's somewhat used to that. But this time around her 28-year-old twin sons are involved. Their corn, soybean and cotton crops are struggling. This is their first experience with a brutal drought.

"I worry. They're not little anymore but I still worry," Lisa McDaniel said.  "I know what David and I have been through but I don't want that on them at all. Now they're going through it, and now they're starting their families and they're going to see what it's like; they're going to realize it. They haven't experienced a bad year. It's scary."

Her son Jeffrey McDaniel has a two-year-old son and another on the way. He and his wife Caroline McDaniel were planning to finish their first house and move in, but that's on hold until they have a better grasp on what the fields will yield. Debt is his biggest worry.

"It's in the back of my mind all the time, not being able to pay back what I owe," said Jeffrey.

His wife does what she can to help.

"I try and remind him not to worry even though that's a really hard thing to do. And just tell him that I have my income coming in and that helps and if I need to work more, I will,” said Caroline, who has a part-time job as a dental hygienist. “We've been going to church, a lot, saying lot of prayers."

Those prayers revolve around rain.