Second Summer of Hell

08.09.12

The Texas Drought Seen Firsthand from the Eyes of Ranchers

Last year panhandle ranchers Phillip and Doris Smith suffered through the worst one-year drought in Texas history. A year later, they tell Malcolm Jones, it’s only gotten worse.

One hot, cloudless day in July 2011, Phillip and Doris Smith sat in the living room of their ranch house on the high plains of the Texas panhandle and tried without much success to see into the future.

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Phillip Smith, owner of the Sunshine Ranch in Panhandle, Texas. Smith, who is a dryland farmer and relies solely on rain for watering, said his crop died because of the region's drought conditions. (Roberto Rodriguez for The Daily Beast)

For 10 miserable months they had endured a searing drought that still gripped almost all of Texas and showed no sign of abating. Cattle ranchers and wheat farmers, the Smiths could do nothing but watch helplessly as their fields and pastures scorched and cracked while the months crawled by with no rain. It was easy to see where wildfires had ripped across the high plains weeks earlier, because those fields were still black. And now there was nothing left to feed the cattle.

“I’ve sold cows,” Phillip said. “We know we’re going to sell more cows. We just don’t know when we’re going to bite the bullet.” He shook his head. “It’s just where we don’t know what we’re going to do.

“We have no sub-moisture at all. I can take you out there and dig a posthole six foot down and you won’t find any water. That’s how dry we are. I can show you cracks in that wheat field that are this wide,” he says, holding his hands about five inches apart.

“Until it rains, we’re out of business right here.”

The Smiths are both 73 years old. They have ranched and farmed all their lives, and while the thought of selling out and leaving has crossed their minds, it hasn’t lingered.

To a stranger listening to a story that sounded like another Plagues of Egypt, their doggedness seemed inexplicable. So many others had drifted away, part of that inexorable exodus off the land that had been going on for more than a century. In 1900, 25 percent of the American population worked on the farm. Today it’s around 2 percent.

So why do they stay?

“Faith,” they said in almost the same breath.

“Faith, and it’s what we were taught to do,” Phillip said. “And we have nowhere else to go.

“We’re pretty independent people, but at my age I can’t quit. I couldn’t have quit when I was 45. And we still owe on this land. We took on a pretty good load. But it’s because we wanted to. If you’re in agriculture, it’s because you want to be there. You’ve got to want to be a farmer to stay with it.”

Outside it was over 100 degrees and 20 mph winds scoured the baked ground in every direction, but the Smith’s house, surrounded by grass and shaded by a grove of elms, was comfortably cool even without air conditioning.

“The only reason the grass and trees are green around this house is we have two domestic wells that we run pretty much all the time,” Phillip said, his voice still hoarse from the smoke he inhaled a month earlier while helping a neighbor fight a wildfire. “I gripe and fuss about it because that makes my electric bill high. But this little lady’s going to keep it looking nice if she can.”

They both smiled at that.

“We’ve seen drought before,” Phillip said, pronouncing the word “drou-th” with a th on the end, still common practice in the South and West. “We’ve been farming 50 years, ever since we were married. We’ve lived in this house since 1964. Doris has lived in this house all her life.

“We had a similar experience in 1953. I was just a boy, 14 or 15. Doris and I weren’t even courting yet. But I remember this pretty well. All our lakes were full, and we had good grass. And then it never rained another drop until the next July, a full year. My dad always said that was the year it never rained—1953 in the Texas panhandle.”

Some part of Texas has suffered major droughts in every decade going back a century. During the 30s, the panhandle endured dust storms so fierce that “seven times, the visibility in Amarillo declines to zero,” according to a Texas Water Resources Institute timeline. “One complete blackout lasts 11 hours and one storm rages for 3 1/2 days.” Doris’s family, farming in the panhandle since the turn of the century, stuck it out. Route 66, the fabled road for Dust Bowl migrants on the way to California, ran about five miles from her family’s front gate, but none of her kin joined the caravan.

The 50s drought, the worst in state history and a benchmark for devastation, lasted five years in some places, 10 in others. Of the state’s 254 counties, 244 were declared federal disaster areas. In the following decade, the state lost 20 percent of its rural population, an exodus that has since slowed but never really stopped.

“‘A dry-land man can’t make it at all without Mother Nature,’ Phillip said, but since the spring of 2011, the ponds and playa lakes have been as empty as the sky.”

In the panhandle, situated in the middle of what was labeled the Great American Desert on 19th-century maps, rain is a sometime thing even in the best of times. The Amarillo area averages less than 20 inches of annual rainfall, almost 10 inches less than the state as a whole, and the Smiths have endured their share of dry years.

“Phillip said we’ve seen drought before, and we have,” Doris said. “But never anything like this.” She paused and when she spoke again, a note of disbelief had crept into her voice: “We’ve never been here before.”

Neither had anyone else in Texas. John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist, doesn’t hesitate to call the 2011 drought “the worst one-year drought in Texas history.” It began in October 2010. “The following 12 months,” he says, “were the driest on record for the entire state.”

“We figure the losses on major crops and livestock in 2011 was $7.6 billion dollars,” says Travis Miller, an agronomy professor at Texas A&M, where he is the associate head for extension programs. “The fires that were associated with the drought did significant damage beyond that. If you look at the agricultural losses and add the fires in, you’re probably looking at $8.5 billion.”

With the drought and fire came high winds, dust storms, record temperatures, and ramped up evaporation levels. Lakes and reservoirs shrank and sometimes disappeared altogether. At least one Texas town ran out of water completely and had to have it trucked in. By July farmers in the panhandle were running their irrigation systems so hard that they had begun to worry about depleting their wells. Any crops grown without irrigation were left to burn up in the fields. After temperatures broke 100 for weeks on end, trees started dying. Even the insect world was afflicted—especially bees, resulting in a 50 percent drop in the state’s honey production. More important, the absence of bees disrupted the pollination cycles of everything from fruit trees to wheat fields.

Worst of all, grass and water—the two things on which every rancher depends—were almost nonexistent.

“Everybody was out of hay,” Miller said. “We were hauling hay from as far away as New York, Montana, even Canada.” As the price of feed kept climbing, ranchers began selling off their herds. Phillip Smith sold 25 mother cows before the middle of July. “I should have sold more,” he said ruefully, since like any rancher, he hated the thought of decimating a herd it took years to build. But he sold, and so did his neighbors. “The livestock auction houses are running every night until the early hours of the morning,” he said.

The Smiths' 1,800-acre spread, the Sunshine Ranch, sits about 15 miles east of Amarillo. Most of the land they own, some they lease. They raise cattle on the grassland, and sow the other half in wheat and forage for the herd.

The ranch has been in Doris’s family for more than a century. At its largest, it ran to 5,000 acres, but over time the Smiths have scaled back. The existing ranch is a comparatively modest operation in a region where farms can stretch to the horizon and acreage is often counted by the tens of thousands. Just down the road from the Smiths are a couple of ranches roughly 100 times the size of theirs.

“In the 60s we had quite a large area that we farmed and hired people to help,” said Doris. “But as the years progressed, it just became Phillip and I working the land. I still help with the cattle or the fencing or whatever else. That little house out back—that used to be for the hired hands. Now we just keep it for when our two daughters come to visit with their families.”

Like about a quarter of their neighbors, the Smiths are dry-land farmers, meaning they don’t irrigate. There is little or no surface water in their part of the world. What water there is comes from the Ogallala aquifer, a vast but finite natural underground reservoir that stretches from South Dakota down into Texas and supplies more than 90 percent of the water used in the Great Plains. But the Ogallala’s water is more accessible in some areas than others, and not accessible at all in some places, such as the Sunshine Ranch.

Dry-land farmers depend instead on rain and snow, ponds and playa lakes, the thousands of natural depressions in the landscape that act like catch basins for rainwater that eventually percolates down to partially restore an increasingly stressed aquifer. “A dry-land man can’t make it at all without Mother Nature,” Phillip said, but since the spring of 2011, the ponds and playa lakes have been as empty as the sky.

 “The farmer always looks to the next year,” Doris says. “Next year will be better. And you stay with it lots of times because of family ties. Being that this is a family farm, you don’t want to see it in someone else’s hands. These guys are stewards of the soil. It’s what they really want to do.”

She looks across the table at her husband. “And that gentleman over there, he could not be happy not working.”

***

That was a year ago. Since then, more than 60 percent of the nation has begun to weather drought every bit as dire as what Texas saw last summer. Across the Midwest, corn and soybeans are burning up in the field, and ranchers are culling their herds. Designating more than half of the nation’s counties as disaster areas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has called this year’s drought the “most severe” in a quarter of a century and the most widespread of any drought since the 50s. And while prices for commodities and cattle are still high, that’s no consolation for the farmers who have already lost their crop to the drought or Texas ranchers who drastically thinned their herds last year and now have little or nothing left to sell.

The one bright spot is that while other regions are being devoured by drought, so far Texas has been spared a second summer of hell. Across much of the state, temperatures are down, rainfall is up, and last summer’s high winds and wildfires have not returned.

But so far the recovery hasn’t made it as far as west Texas. Everything west of Dallas-Ft. Worth has recovered much slower than the rest of the state, if it’s recovered at all—across the panhandle, 2012 looks a lot like 2011. Amarillo recorded seven inches of rain for the first half of the year, but even that below-average figure beats anything Phillip Smith has experienced.

“This is the driest I’ve ever seen it, including 1953,” he says. “We’ve had no rain here to speak of. We got an inch back in the spring that let us harvest 11 bushels of wheat we didn’t think we were going to get, but the 140 acres of hay we planted back in June is dead in the field. For the year, we’ve gotten under six inches of rain, and by May 15 it was 100 degrees.”

Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, confirms Phillip’s assessment.  “Western Carson County [where the Smiths live] is one of the drier spots in the state,” he says. “According to our data, they’ve received less than half of normal rainfall over the past 18 months. The nearest place with average rainfall is about 60 miles away. In terms of how bad that region is compared to all of the panhandle, if you rank on a scale of zero to one, with one being best and worst at zero, it’s around .2.”

Although he doesn’t think the evidence directly pins the blame for drought on global climate change, Nielsen-Gammon does argue that climate change has had “at least a contributory effect on high temperatures, which tends to be the relatively ignored part of drought, because high temperatures mean that plants and animals need more water, and at the same time water evaporates more from the soil and run off isn’t as much.”

What that means to Doris Smith, who has planted a vegetable garden every year for as long as she can remember, is that “for the past two years, I have not put in a garden simply because it is so dry. My ground has not even produced weeds.”

“You got a few four o’clocks,” her husband points out.

“Four o’clock flowers! They’re like bindweed. They’ll come up anywhere,” she says.

“Bindweed,” Phillip explains, “is our principal enemy. It’s a noxious weed around here, sort of like a small-leaf morning glory, and it’ll grow nearly on nothing but atmosphere. They’re bound to have some purpose. I don’t know what it is, but I know we can’t kill it.”

Most of Phillip’s jokes, usually about adversity, come around, sooner or later, to ranch life and all things animal, vegetable, and mineral.

“I saw my grandfather chop cotton, and I wasn’t too impressed. The only way I ever want to pick cotton is out of an aspirin bottle.”

Even the way he sets up that chestnut, he makes the joke a part of his own history.

Both Phillip and Doris are cheerful yet clear-eyed stoics, their good nature always tethered to a resolute honesty with no room for false hope.

“Seriously, as far as our drought situation, we are equally as bad or worse than last year,” Phillip says straight out. “And it doesn’t look like we have much hope for the winter. If it doesn’t rain in the next few months, you’ll start to see blow dirt here like you saw in the 30s, and you’ll see more For Sale signs. And don’t think I’m crybabying. I’m just telling it like it is.”

Before the drought, the Smiths owned about 150 cows and their calves and as many as 100 yearlings.  Since then they’ve culled their herd down to 40 cows and their calves, and three bulls. If it doesn’t rain in the next few weeks, they plan to sell half of the remaining stock and then get through the winter with only 20 cows and three bulls, enough to start rebuilding a herd.

“Don’t think we’re anything special. There’s lot of folks just as bad off as us,” Phillip says. “It’s the same all over the country.”

No one disputes that. Raising beef cattle is the state’s biggest agricultural industry, and Texas is the nation’s biggest ranching state “by far,” according to Travis Miller. “We have roughly 130 million acres of ranch land. We probably make $10 billion a year from beef cattle.” But the losses, when they come, can be just as big. In 2011, the drought cost the Texas cattle business $3.2 billion. An estimated 660,000 beef cows were slaughtered or moved to other states during the drought, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. It was the largest single-year decline in Texas beef cow numbers ever recorded. Some ranchers sold off their entire herds.

***

The Smiths know firsthand about uphill fights. They’ve even won a couple. In the 90s, Phillip successfully battled prostate cancer. That same decade, they joined their neighbors and other activists in a protracted dispute with the Pantex plant across the road from their ranch. Under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy, Pantex is the only facility in the United States where nuclear weapons are assembled and disassembled. Phillip and Doris spent 15 years in the fight to stop the facility from expanding and to protect the environment (her home office is still crammed with file cabinets full of research). In the end, “we accomplished what we set out to do,” he says. The EPA ruled that Pantex had poisoned the soil and the groundwater, and the facility was placed on the Superfund list of contaminated sites. Pantex was compelled to install air and water monitors and institute rigorous site clean up.

When asked to rank the current drought against all the other obstacles they have faced, Phillip doesn’t hesitate. The drought, he says unequivocally, is the “most severe.”

“Because we have no control over it,” Doris says. “It’s affecting the way we live, it’s affecting our financial standing. We had accumulated a sizable savings, and we’ve used all of that. It’s even affected our children and grandchildren. They’re not so willing to come back and take over the farm because of what we’re experiencing.”

They are sustained by a tight-knit community surrounding nearby St. Francis Catholic Church, a small parish founded in 1906 by German immigrants, including members of Doris’s family.

“We are a community of rural farmers,” says Doris, “many of them third, fourth and fifth generation” who rely upon one another for labor and equipment.

”That’s the way it’s been throughout the century. Trying to stay on the plains means one neighbor helping another,” Phillip says. “That’s kept us going the past few years, to be real honest about it.”

Neither Phillip nor Doris wants to think too long about the possibility of selling out, or even selling the rest of the herd, which comes to more or less the same thing, since at their age starting a new herd from scratch would be a nearly overwhelming task.

“Oh, if someone came by and made an offer that would let us stay until we passed—” Phillip begins, but Doris cuts him off before he can finish.

“It would be considered,” she says tartly, eliciting a laugh from her husband.

“We still love being producers,” she says. “There’s a real sense of pride.”

“We do love our livestock,” Phillip says. “Like to see them come into the world. It’s a miracle, to give birth to one of those calves. We enjoy propagating life, watching our cattle grow. It’s certainly a pleasure. It’s a business, yes, but it’s also part of our lives.”

He stops and thinks for a moment before going on.

“We have had severity. But we had a nice life, too. I promise you we have. And we thought we made a mark.”