I’ve written about a lot of droughts in the course of more than 30 years reporting on agriculture.
And I’ve probably written about more droughts in the 12 years (since 1999) I’ve been working the Southwest than I did in all the years I covered the Southeast. It seems that a drought exists somewhere in this region all the time. They move around a bit, spread the misery, so to speak, but I can usually find a dry spot somewhere in Texas, New Mexico or Oklahoma on just about any given day.
I’ve shot a lot of pictures of dried-up stock tanks, cracks big enough to lose a spare tire in and more shriveled up plants than I care to think about. I’ve interviewed farmers who persisted in spite of dry soils and hot weather—some optimistic that it would rain soon, others resigned to the probability that it wouldn’t.
I’ve gotten to the point that I cross my fingers when it rains in Denton, Texas, in hopes that folks out in the Panhandle, Southwest Oklahoma, Eastern New Mexico or the Texas Coastal Bend are also getting a good soaking shower. Too often they’re not.
I’ve scribbled articles on droughts that lasted several months and on dry spells that stretched into a year or longer. I know of farmers who have been ruined by drought, and I’ve talked with many who have survived multiple dry years.
I think drought may be the worst sort of natural calamity that can befall a farmer or rancher. With wildfire, flood, hail or freeze damage, loss is almost immediate and producers get back to the business of recovery as soon as possible. The loss is painful but often short-lived.
Drought is more insidious. It’s a slow, agonizing, depressing loss that may take months to complete with farmers daily watching while crops wither in the relentless heat, blasted by furnace-like winds and shredded by blowing sand. And every day farmers look to the skies hoping to see a cloud and find nothing but a blue expanse of space.
They watch pastures dry up and spend long, back-breaking days hauling water to keep cattle alive. And often they still have to liquidate herds at prices they wouldn’t have considered under more normal circumstances.
Drought brings suffering and loss to farmland. And I’ve reported on too many of them.
But this one, the drought of 2011, a dry spell that began for most of Texas sometime last summer or fall, may be the most depressing I’ve ever written about.
According to several farmers I’ve interviewed recently, this drought may not be the worst ever. It’s too early to gauge that for now, especially in light of the multiple years of drought that parched the Southwest in the 1950s. But farmers have so much to lose to this one.
They started with high hopes. Cotton had hit $2 a pound. So farmers who could increased acreage, hoping to capitalize on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Corn, wheat, milo and soybeans also hit near historic highs, adding to the enthusiasm.
And it didn’t rain.
And Southwest cotton farmers may end up abandoning more than 2 million acres of cotton they could sell for more than $1.30 a pound. Farmers expect corn, milo, and beans to suffer as well, even irrigated acreage that suffers from excessive heat and too little water. Much of the Southwest wheat crop was a failure. Ranchers are liquidating herds early. Peanut farmers have opportunities to contract for unprecedented prices—if they can make a crop.
Most producers have crop insurance but they prefer to make a crop, harvest and sell it—see the fruits of their labors in combines, cotton strippers and feedlots instead of an insurance check.
The thing that touches me most, I think, is their persistence. They are frustrated but determined to persevere, get through this disaster and make another crop next year. I get a little less depressed because of their resolve.
The rain will come.