In the heart of Bastrop County sits Indian Hills Farm, a family-owned operation where Hersh and Karen Kendall produce livestock and crops on around 170 acres. In the last year they’ve lost hundreds of trees, some over a century old, on their property. “Here the drought was extraordinary, and I think our area of the county is especially dry in the summer,” says Hersh Kendall.
One of the worst fires in Texas history destroyed over 34,000 acres in Bastrop County in September 2011, and early spring rains have disappeared with the arrival of the summer heat. Though the area was hit especially hard, the story of the Kendalls is a familiar one to farmers throughout Texas: In 2011 rolling hills turned from green to golden, then brown, and the drought still hangs over many counties, leaving them to wonder if an end is in sight.
The worst single-year drought in Texas history began in October 2010 with the emergence of La Niña, counterpart to the better-known El Niño. The cooler Pacific surface temperatures of La Niña cause dry, warm weather in the southern United States. Throughout the spring and summer of 2011, the drought intensified as high temperatures accelerated evaporation and water levels plummeted.
The state’s agriculture sector suffered an estimated loss of over $7.62 billion. Of that estimated loss, over $3.2 billion were in the cattle sector. In 2010, prior to the drought, cattle and calves accounted for almost half of all agricultural product revenue in Texas. But since the drought, “we’ve now seen record-breaking lows in the number of cattle making it from our ranchers to the auction block,” said Gene Hall, a representative of the Texas Farm Bureau.
In 2011 Indian Hills Farm had almost no graze for cattle; Hersh Kendall estimates that 90% of what his livestock ate was purchased hay. The higher costs contributed to his decision to sell off at least half of their more mature cows, keeping younger animals that consume less.
An hour north in Milam County, Richardson Farms has faced similar problems. Jim Richardson says his farm hasn’t seen rain since March, “We were getting better but now we’re going back the other way. Plants are starting to dry up and die.” Richardson stresses the difficulty of keeping cattle fed, “Poultry, as well as hogs and your other monogastrics, we can feed them some barley and wheat. But cattle need grass.”
Jeff Pate, an Extension program specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife, says that the severity of the drought’s impact has caused some farmers to become more cautious. “We’ve seen that livestock producers especially have been slow to restock even though the drought has lessened,” says Pate. Not only have costs risen significantly for the same animals the farmers sold in 2011, many producers are still not convinced that the drought is nearing the end.
The Farm Bureau’s Gene Hall is only slightly more optimistic. He says the state is better able to withstand a dry summer than it was a year ago. In many parts of Texas soil moisture levels have risen, improving the odds for spring plantings. However, wide swaths of Western and Southern Texas are still struggling.
Both scientists and farmers are adapting to the drier conditions. Pate has seen many farmers switching from corn, one of the thirstiest crops, to cotton. Richardson Farms used to grow corn for feed but in recent years has switched to sorghum, largely because it is more drought-tolerant.
Pate and Hall confirm that there may be a move from irrigated to dryland crops in the near future. “Many farmers are re-evaluating irrigation, as bringing up the water is so expensive,” says Hall. Irrigation carries high costs, but irrigated fields can be far more productive. Irrigation was what enabled the Kershalls to save crops of squash and tomatoes on Indian Hills Farm in 2011. Though they weren’t able to produce pecans on a large-scale, the Kershalls were able to keep some of the trees alive through irrigation.
In coming years irrigation may no longer be an option. In the High Plains of Texas over 96% of water supply comes from underground sources, says Hall. A recent study from researchers at University of Texas at Austin found that groundwater levels under the High Plains are rapidly dropping. The study’s authors predict that within a few decades the region will not be able to support the same level of irrigated agriculture. “Without irrigation you depend 100% on Mother Nature,” says Pate.
Scientists are tackling the problem, working to produce strains of corn that can better resist drought conditions. Biotech giant Monsanto is testing a new genetically modified corn, DroughtGard, in farms from South Dakota to Texas, while other laboratories are using traditional breeding methods to produce drought-tolerant strains of crops. In the meantime, farmers continue to hope for rain.
Will their hopes be answered? State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon remains cautious. He states that the summer is likely to be warmer than average and “rainfall, as usual, is pretty much impossible to predict.” Rains this spring have improved the situation; the U.S. Drought Monitor recently reported that under 14% of Texas counties were still in drought conditions.
The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center has also released an El Niño watch, citing a 50% chance that El Niño conditions will develop during the second half of 2012. This is good news for Texas farmers, lessening the odds of a double dip La Niña.
Land values in Texas have stayed mostly constant despite the drought. The most recent survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found that land values rose most significantly for irrigated land, while values for dry land only saw a slight change. Texas still lags behind the rest of the country and ranchland values are likely to fall without further rain.
Eyes throughout the Midwest are focused on Texas with the looming possibility of the drought spreading. In 2012, pasture quality has nosedived in the Midwest, even as conditions in Texas improve. The U.S.D.A. Crop Progress report recently labeled 21% of pasture in Texas as “good” or “excellent,” up from 6% in early June 2011. In the same time period the percentage of good or excellent pasture in Missouri dropped from 63% to 23%.
Spirits are higher in Texas than they were a year ago. Pate says, “Farmers are adaptable. We never grew peanuts in the High Plains until just a few years ago.” Now Texas is second to only Georgia in peanut farming. Gene Hall adds that on the whole, Texas is recovering. But for farmers like Jim Richardson and Hersh Kendall, several months of rain will be needed before they consider the drought over. “We depend on rain, that’s what makes the world go round,” says Kendall.
Madeline Ross is a freelance writer focusing on issues of food and agriculture, and a student at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs and the Columbia School of Journalism.