Drought shrivels Texas family farms

At four years and counting, the drought now ranks among the worst in a century.

Just a few miles from the thrumming heart of central Texas's high-tech revolution, the Hutto Co-operative cotton gin is a picture of the American can-do spirit from a much earlier time. Here farmers who have worked the rich black soil of this part of Williamson County for generations bring their wheat to silos, their cotton to be ginned, and their wallets to buy seed and start all over again.

But not Bill Stern. After 24 years of farming on his own, Mr. Stern called it quits last year. He says the weather and the prices have finally got him beat.

"Too many dry years," he says flatly, as cotton-gin workers behind him vacuum up bales of raw cotton for processing. Now Stern, who supports his family as a jack-of-all-trades at the co-op, says the ongoing drought is likely to push out several of his farming neighbors as well. "They're saying this [drought] is getting to be just as bad as the one in the 1950s."

At four years and counting, the current drought is well on its way to ranking among the worst in a century. That includes the Dust Bowl years of the mid-1930s and the devastating dry period from 1951 to '56, which pushed nearly one-third of Texas farmers - 100,000 in all - out of business. Some would call it a normal cycle that has vexed farmers since the time of Cain. Others, with admitted ties to the land, say this drought could spell the end of a Texas institution: the family farm.

"From an agricultural standpoint, this drought is approaching the severity of the '50s," says Carl Anderson, an agricultural economist at Texas A&M University in College Station. "Get out just a few miles to Fredericksburg, and draw a line from Abilene to Uvalde. That country hasn't had rain for a year. It's a dire situation."

Meteorologically speaking, the current summer may not be the worst, but it certainly has been one for the record books. The Dallas-Fort Worth area, for instance, has gone the most days - 74 - without any measurable rain. (The previous record was 58 days, set in 1950.) While drought conditions stretch all the way north to Montana, hardest hit are the cities and towns of west Texas, where some areas have received only half of their average rainfall, for three years in a row.

"Rural Texas hasn't been the same since the '50s, and we're going to go through the same process again," says Dr. Anderson. "It's going to take some people out."

Consider San Angelo. The town has two reservoirs. One is at 8 percent of capacity, the other is at 3 percent.

Mark Tew, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, says the past two years of drought can be attributed to the La Nia weather phenomenon out in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. The good news, he says, is that this system of cooler-than-normal ocean temperatures is beginning to break up, a possible sign of rain to come for parched parts of the Southwest.

"The weather service is projecting above-normal precipitation for Texas from the mid-fall into the spring," he says, hopefully. "We've been on the south side of the jet stream - that's the dry side - for a couple of years now, and all the storms have been heading up to the Northeast. That should change."

Down at the Hutto Co-op, that doesn't exactly qualify as music to the ears. Here, some farmers are using crop insurance to pay their bills. Some are having to go into debt to buy grain to feed their cattle, which usually would be munching on free pasture grass in a good year.

And the good years have become so rare that most people can't remember the last one.

It's a far cry from the booming high-tech business, symbolized by Dell Computer Co., which has its headquarters just eight miles down the highway in Round Rock. And it's a rural style of life that is rapidly giving way to the cookie-cutter limestone subdivisions that are buying up and supplanting farmland, sometimes paying $10,000 an acre.

"Agriculture is a high-risk business, and it should have high rewards, too, but it doesn't," says William Albert, manager of the Hutto Co-op, as he handles Hutto's equivalent of a noon-time rush. "In a good year we break even or maybe make a little money, but you aren't always going to have good years."

Michael Randis, a farmer of wheat, corn, and milo, says that drought is part of farming, something that every farmer has to count on time and again. But the double whammy of drought and low prices is forcing many of his friends to think of new careers.

"There's fixin' to be a bunch of broke farmers unless we get some rain," he says, adding with a sardonic grin, "You've really got to like it to be in this business."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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