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Texas drought has farmers on the ropes

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."

Has the drought cut into his equipment business? "I'm going to say 50% or more," Stevens said. "This is not a local deal. This is the whole state of Texas. It's affecting everyone. I employ 45 people normally. Now I'm down to 32."

It's the same story at the area's two remaining cotton gins. If the farmers don't bring a crop in, the gins won't operate.

The ferocious wind that Farmer calls "a hee-haw son of a gun" affects not just agriculture but also public safety, halting air and highway traffic alike. So worrisome are the dust storms that NASA uses a satellite to map and predict their direction, duration and intensity, giving public health officials a 48-hour notice of serious events.

The fine-as-cornstarch dust has caused an uptick in respiratory distress, asthma attacks and more severe allergies among children and other residents in the region, according to the Texas climatologist's office.

But farmers in Dawson County don't lie down before the wind. They combat it. They scheme against it. No one plants east-west rows, lest the prevailing west winds destroy a week's work in an afternoon. They contour-plow to blunt the wind and to conserve water. The widespread practice of planting cover crops is an outgrowth of the Dust Bowl, when empty, fallow fields were taken by wind.

Fewer farmers are walking off the land today than during the Dust Bowl. Men like Farmer are determined not to let that happen, driven in part by fealty to what their ancestors endured and built.

"You hope God gives you the strength to get over the drought," he said, tugging his white straw cowboy hat lower over his forehead. "If I fail, I've let my father and my father-in-law down. They all made it."

Farmer began farming full time after high school. Yet, like most farmers, he's an experienced agronomist, a reliable meteorologist, an astute market economist and a passable mechanic. Farmer also serves on the national cotton board, an industry group. Still, he wonders what will become of him if the drought persists.

"Look at me," Farmer says. "I'm what the world considers uneducated. I didn't go to college. If I go under, what could I do? I wouldn't have a place in the world."

Moments later, a jackrabbit darts out from the scrub and bounds along the road. Farmer looks at the animal and shakes his head. "He's going to have a hard summer."

'Bad is it can get'

Ralph Miller's cows won't all make it through summer. He may sell them along with this year's calves, the rancher equivalent of liquidating a factory.

The 79-year-old lives about 50 miles east of Lamesa, in Fluvanna. It's not far, particularly by West Texas standards. Those miles should make all the difference. Lamesa sits atop the Caprock, a massive escarpment from which farmland falls away and cattle country begins. The 3,000-foot wall creates a rain shadow, usually stalling precipitation on ranches and not allowing it to reach farms.

Not this year. If there were such a thing as less than zero rainfall, that would describe what Miller's 135 square miles of range has seen. Nothing is falling but the aquifer levels, which are on a "permanent downward trend" statewide, according to the Texas state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon.

Miller, whose family began homesteading here in 1900, is among the few Texans still working a ranch who lived through the region's worst droughts: the Dust Bowl of the '30s, the big dry-up of the '50s — Texas' drought of record — the two-year drought in the '70s and the devastation of the mid-'90s.

"I'd say it's just about as bad as it can get," Miller said. The grass is so bad, so lacking nutrition, he said, that "it's like the cows are eating ashes."

Asked what he recalled about the Dust Bowl, when he was a young child, Miller answered sharply, "I remember the government men coming to kill the cattle." Families got $5 for each starving cow shot by government operatives.

The next drought was no better. "The ground looked so bad that it looked like you swept the land," he said. "But we had water. That's the difference between then and now."

Next year's calving season is projected to be grim, with few cows expected to reproduce in the face of such a drought.

This is the first time in 40 years that Miller has been forced to cull his stock. "I called the buyer last night," he said, gazing out the truck window.

Miller's ranch is a monotonous, monochromatic landscape stretching to the horizon, save for one flourishing tree species, mesquite. Its roots can reach to 140 feet, tapping into groundwater. The livestock tanks that hold rainwater for Miller's cows are faring less well. His tanks — deep, wide gouges in the red clay — are drying up.

He parked near one of the watering holes, ringed with marks denoting dropping water levels. Even his older cattle that know better have been so desperate for water that they've attempted to drink from the muddy dregs at the bottom. When they get mired, he hauls them out with ropes or chains. Miller's herd now has a distinctive look: mud-caked lower legs, like dirty brown socks.

As he drove on, Miller's cattle came to him, breaking into a run. Cattle don't like to run, but Miller and his hands have been spreading pellet feed, and now the hungry animals associate farm trucks with food.

The condition of the cattle crowding the truck was shocking. Older cows stood with their ribs etched into taut hides, haunches protruding. Young calves and yearlings were dull-eyed and listless. There was no food, but the mob of cattle lingered, lowing. Miller pushed his black felt hat back on his head and surveyed the group of cows and calves. "They should be fat and slick," he said. "It's depressing."

Miller wasn't raised to complain. As he explained what he drought has wrought, he was loath to dwell on the negative.

"My mother fed four kids and about 15 cowboys, and she never bought a loaf of bread in her life," he said, lifting his chin and one eyebrow. "Baked three times a day on a wood stove. People don't know what hard times are."

But could he lose the ranch?

"It's not a' gonna happen. I'm not a' gonna let it, if I have to work 24 hours a day," Miller said. "I've been through these droughts, and I know it's gonna rain again. I will be here when it does."

julie.cart@latimes.com

Times staff writer Genaro Molina contributed to this report.

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