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Texas drought has farmers on the ropes

West Texas farmers and ranchers struggle to survive the worst drought in the region since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

May 22, 2011|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Lamesa, Texas — The wind in West Texas is famously powerful and incessant. But this year, more big blows than anyone can remember have roared through, stripping away precious topsoil and carrying off another season of hope for farmers and ranchers.

Everywhere, it seems, the land is on the move: sand building up in corners of the just-swept front porch and coating clean laundry on the line, dust up your nose and in crevices of farm machinery. Drive along unpaved county roads and the farmers' plight becomes clear: Wind rakes the surface, scouring sand into adjacent fields, sweeping into farmers' deeply tilled furrows.

These clogged fields are said to be "blown out," and some of them belong to Matt Farmer. He grows cotton and peanuts here, or would like to, but this spring the sand, he says, keeps "ooching and ooching" into his fields. On a recent windy day, Farmer got out of his truck to inspect his cover crop of wheat. In a normal year, the wheat would be about knee high. This is not a normal year; the anemic stalks barely rise above the heel of Farmer's dusty boots.

That's bad news for a cotton crop, which must be planted in the furrows between the tall wheat stalks, which will shield the young plants from the wind-driven sand that abrades and slices growing things.

"It's as dry as I've ever seen it in my lifetime," said Farmer, 51, a plainspoken Texan not given to hyperbole. "I don't remember a drought this widespread. I've got a lot of country that's blowing, but I can't do a thing about it."

In coming weeks, when he and his neighbors begin to plow thousands of acres of dry ground, "this whole country is going to be blowed away," Farmer said.

The wind, the dust and the hair-crackling dryness are ubiquitous reminders of persistent drought gripping the Great Basin, a broad dry swath tracing much the same outline as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It's part of the "new normal" that climate scientists are talking about: the climate of extremes. April was such a month, with tornadoes wheeling across seven states, monumental flooding of the Mississippi River through the Midwest and the South, and a searing drought in parts of the western plains.

" 'Global weirding' is the best way to describe what we are seeing," said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. "There is a lot going on these days that's not what we are used to seeing. What's happening is our rainfall patterns are shifting. In some places it means more heavy rainfall, in some places it means more drought, in some places it means both."

While much of the nation focuses on the flooding Mississippi River, the Oklahoma panhandle is enduring its longest drought on record. Some communities have not had rain in eight months. Crops wither in fields. This month, 39 Kansas counties were declared federal disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making farmers and other agricultural businesses eligible for low-interest loans.

Texas is especially hard-hit. More than 82% of the state is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Three-quarters of Texas' wheat crop has been rated as poor or very poor.

Unprecedented wildfires — about 9,000 — have scorched more than 2 million acres. The fires have destroyed 313,000 acres of grassland, virtually all of it grazing pastures. Texas ranchers, the nation's top cattle producers, have no natural grass to feed their animals. Some are down to a few weeks' supply of water in stock ponds.

Plant and pray

It used to be said that rain would follow the plow, but that's never been true. West Texas farmers — called sodbreakers or nesters — have always had a rough go of it in this arid tableland halfway between Midland and Lubbock. Cotton growers like Farmer raise crops with either costly irrigation or the dryland method: plant and pray for rain. Either way, it's never easy.

Over the decades, drought and the gut-sinking uncertainty accompanying it have pared the farming community in Lamesa from 1,200 families to about 250. "Farming is the worst way in the world to make a living. But it's the best way in the world to raise a family," Farmer said. "But you better like the way dirt smells."

He chuckled and steered his pickup down another dirt road past more rows of tilled brown earth, uttering the universal truth for those trying to scratch a living out of dust: "Rain is the answer to everything out here."

Farmer pulled his truck into a farm equipment manufacturing company in Lamesa. One of the family-owned firm's most-popular tractor attachments is the Sandfighter. The owner, Sam Stevens, stopped his forklift long enough to join in the harping about the drought. It's the county's longest-running conversation.

Stevens also raises cotton, using well water to augment rain. "Last year I pumped two or three wells before I ruined them," he said. "I have kids who did not see rain until they were 4 years old."

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