AGRICULTURE:

Farmers in the Southern Plains brace for multi-year drought

David Cleavinger distinctly remembers looking out to his cornfields on a recent 111-degree summer day in Wildorado, Texas. Winds were whipping the stalks at 40 mph, and despite the puddles of water settling in the irrigated corn rows, he knew his crop would barely stand a chance this season.

"We have irrigation, but it doesn't matter how much irrigation you have," he said of the frustratingly fruitless work. In the face of violent winds and extreme heat, Cleavinger's corn was barely able to take in the little available water before it quickly evaporated. "When these winds come across these plains, there's nothing to stop them," he said of the treeless landscape he calls home.

Cleavinger, who farms about 3,500 acres with his son in the Panhandle town, has been growing corn, wheat and cotton and raising cattle for 33 years. None compares to this year, when the combination of brutal heat, relentless winds and no rain created one of the most difficult years in history for Texas agriculture.

Many farmers across Texas, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico -- areas under extreme drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor -- are reporting the toughest season they've ever seen.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the agencies that run the Drought Monitor, foresee continued drought through the end of the year (ClimateWire, Sept. 16). But climatologists say there is strong possibility that the drought, nearing 12 months in duration, may extend to become a multi-year event, spanning several growing seasons. This could have painful consequences to the agricultural sector, with few tools for relief.

A double dip of La Niña

The conditions today are a far cry from the climate only a year ago, when favorable weather fostered confidence in farmers eager to take advantage of rising commodity prices.

La Niña -- the weather event marked by cooling Pacific temperatures that stimulate warming in the center of the country -- kick-started the drought last fall. La Niña persisted through the critical rain months of spring, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. By June, the duration of the drought had already broken records. By August, climate trackers were seeing the possibility for a disastrous prolongation due to the return of La Niña.

"All of a sudden, we saw 50-50 chance [of La Niña re-emerging]," said Fuchs. "That is really not good news."

The long-term forecast is grim. "Everything, scientifically, is leaning toward this being a multi-year event," said Fuchs.

"We can call it a consensus [among climatologists] of an increased chance that it's back," added Gary McManus, associate state climatologist for Oklahoma. "We can't say for certain that it will be La Niña effect, but the odds are in its favor."

Multi-year events are not rare in themselves, and are often a defining attribute of droughts. By nature, droughts -- especially severe ones -- are slow to ramp up and slow to recover, said Fuchs. That sets them apart from other natural disasters. But the timing of these back-to-back La Niña events has not been kind to the Southern Plains, said McManus.

"At least in Oklahoma, it's been quite some time since we've had two cycles of drought against two cycles of wheat," he said. So far, the drought has cost the state $2 billion in losses, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

The last multi-season drought lasted from 2007 to 2009 through Alabama and Georgia, with a much smaller footprint than the current drought.

Tropical storm season in the Gulf of Mexico could provide some relief to Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. But the window of opportunity is waning, as storms tend to subside by Thanksgiving.

"We're getting to the end of the season," said Dale Mohler, an agricultural meteorologist with Accuweather.com. "The blocking high [pressure area] that has promoted the dryness and heat is still there, and that keeps the moisture away." Mohler expects La Niña to persist through February.

"The odds are very high that rainfall will be below normal," he said. "Those storms will be too few and too far between."

Thirsty seeds put farmers in a bind

Texas agriculture has suffered $8.7 billion in losses. The Lubbock area, which grows two-thirds of the state's cotton, has felt a $2.3 billion loss in the production of the leading cash crop.

Cleavinger, the Texas Panhandle farmer, did grow crops this year, but not without a large number of inputs and humbling losses. In most years, he harvests 60 bushels of wheat. This year, it was 25. His corn harvest was 40 percent less than last year.

"We started pumping water on the first of March, and the irrigation never shut off until a week ago," he said. "That's unheard of."

In Oklahoma, farmers are 15 to 20 inches low on rain, said McManus. A sprinkling of rain on winter wheat seeds will help them germinate, getting them far enough along to reach the winter dormancy period, when water is less important. But a good rainy season throughout the winter months will be essential for soil moisture.

Wheat farmers are in a bind to plant their seed. Few have chosen to invest in certified seed, opting for saved, bin-run seed. Some, like Cleavinger, are hoping the seed will feel just enough rain to carry the seed through dormancy.

"Producers are very leery of putting seed into the ground," said Fuchs. Despite the slim odds for success, many wheat farmers will keep on planting. Several crop insurance plans insist that farmers sow seeds to be covered. The little wheat that does make it past dormancy will be cattle feed, said Cleavinger.

The seed that does go in won't be the latest-generation certified seed from agricultural companies, but saved seed. Irrigated acres will be cut off and heartier varieties planted, said Steelee Fischbacher, spokeswoman for the Texas Wheat Producers Association.

Short- and long-term damage

The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not recognize drought as a disaster, said Fuchs, limiting the federal aid sources that farmers can receive. Safety nets for traditional crop insurance policies have dropped. Farmers are unable to reach the actual production history -- the average yield figure that insurance companies use to determine payouts for losses -- and they are left to absorb the difference.

The Obama administration strongly supports disaster assistance programs that protect farmers in their time of greatest need. To strengthen this support, the administration proposes to extend these programs, or similar types of disaster assistance that are of a similar cost, for the 2012-2016 crops.

The programs provide assistance to those who have suffered losses in farm revenue, livestock or the ability to graze their livestock and losses due to diseases or adverse weather. The Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency is allowing farmers to graze cattle and collect hay on normally off-limits conservation land until the end of October.

Cotton has been surviving on its irrigation. Farmers are resting assured for now, given that the planting season for cotton won't begin until next spring. If the drought extends to then, farmers may not have that option.

"Water supplies are dwindling," said Mohler. "That's just more consumption with no replenishment."

But on the ground, farmers are maintaining hope. "As long as we get a little bit of rain, we should be able to make a little bit in the spring," said Fischbacher.

Some losses will take longer to recover. Cattle farmers will need many years to replenish their losses, as long-term genetic bloodlines for top-bred cattle have died off en masse.

But Fuchs, who has studied drought throughout the country, fears this will accelerate the loss of full-time farmers, rippling through the social and economic fabric of small towns. "For the older generation, they've sold off, and they're not coming back," he said.