USA - Even irrigated cotton acres now struggle to hang on as scars of 2022 drought could last a lifetime

02.08.2022 297 views

An aerial snapshot of Hale County, Texas, tells the story best. A year of minimal rain and extreme heat has produced a scene that looks more like the dead of winter instead of peak summer. Shades of brown, along with the occasional pop of green, are vivid signs of just how devastating the drought of 2022 is for area farmers and the cotton crop.

“This is going to leave a scar that guys are going to remember forever,” says Todd Straley of Quarterway Cotton Growers in Plainview, Texas.

Quarterway Cotton Growers is one of several cotton gins in the area, and Straley manages it. The infrastructure is supported by an area known for growing cotton.

This year, the cotton crop is in jeopardy as the region is experiencing the highest level of drought measured by U.S. Drought Monitor. Without help from Mother Nature, much of the dryland crop is gone and even irrigated acres are fighting to hang on.

“We expected at the beginning of the season to be getting somewhere just slightly over 100,000 bales this year,” explains Straley. “Today it looks like we're going to be somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000.”

Worse Than 2011 

The outlook for 15% to 20% of the expected production could be the worst crop on record for this area of Texas. The last time the crop looked this poor was during the devastating drought of 2011. 

“I can tell you in 2011 this particular area did 40,000 bales,” he says.

Steven Ebeling is a young farmer from Plainview, Texas, who farms near Quarterway Cotton Growers. He says 2011 still stings.

“I remember it very vividly,” Ebeling says. “I spent every day building fences and moving cows.”

His outlook is much like Straley’s; 2022 may be worse, largely because the aquifer is depleted, and he doesn’t have as much irrigation water available.

“In 2011, we had more water capacity than what we do now,” Ebeling says . “Whether it was smart or not, we were able to push a crop in 2011 and make that crop. This year, our aquifer is depleted to the point we've turned this into a salvage operation already.”

Ebeling admits farming in west Texas is never easy, but 2022 has been exceptionally tough and a brutal blow to farmers trying to make a crop. Ebeling’s first-hand account of the damage drought has already done is proof of that.

“We don't have an acre of dryland left; it's all been failed out. Most of it never even sprouted,” he says. “It's pretty sad  most of this crop is already starting to give it up. It never really even had a fighting chance, to be honest.”

High Heat Scorches Crop Prospects 

It’s not just the drought that’s been unbearable for the crops. The heat is also slamming potential. 

The National Weather Service (NWS) says so far this year, Lubbock, Texas, has seen 29 days with temperatures above 100 degrees. Sixteen of those came in July, and more are forecasted to hit in August.  

“The only plants that are green or even alive are under a pivot,” says Ebeling.

Ebeling still hopes to salvage 80% of his irrigated crop, which is much better than other farmers in the area. But the recent triple-digit heat means the number of irrigated fields that fail this year will more than likely grow.  

“I like to make a crop,” he adds. “That's why I farm. I enjoy growing a crop. It makes me feel good. That's what gets me up in the morning. It is an absolute last resort to have to turn off of a crop.”

Irrigated Acres Struggling to Survive 

Darren Hudson is Larry Combest Endowed Chair and an agricultural economist at Texas Tech University. He says it’s stories like Ebeling’s play out out all across the High Plains this year.

“It's horrible,” says Hudson. “I don't know there's any other way to describe it.”

Considering crop prospects dwindle by the day, and the dryland crop is already gone, Hudson says it’s a stark reminder of the crop in 2011.

“What we're seeing now is there are a lot of irrigated acres that have been plowed up, that’s just not worth taking it to harvest,” says Hudson.

Hudson says USDA was aggressive in its July forecast, putting current U.S. cotton abandonment at 32%, which is the third highest on record. Much of that crop loss is due to the drought in Texas.

“I think the abandonment number that USDA is working with at this point is probably far too low for this region,” he says.

Hudson has talked to farmers across the region and he says most are making difficult decisions daily about fields that are too far gone to try to save.

“We had 2011, and then we're following it up, 11 years later with another catastrophic failure,” says Hudson. “We've had a few droughts in between, we have gins that aren't opening at all this year, we've got some ginners that are combining efforts.”

Economic Losses Could Be in the Billions 

It’s the infrastructure piece of the puzzle that is troubling for economists and communities.

Texas accounts for 42% of total U.S. cotton production, and the majority of that is grown around Lubbock, which is known as the largest cotton patch in the U.S.

“We're looking at figures possibly in the billions of dollars worth of lost economic activity for the region,” adds Hudson.

As a gin manager, Straley understands how vital cotton is to not just his gin, but the entire area.

“This drought is going to have a huge impact on West Texas, and Texas in general, for our entire lifetime,” says Straley.

His gin is in a strong enough financial shape to weather the storm this year, but he’s making changes because the crop just isn’t there.

“Instead of running for three and four months, 24 hours a day, we will more than likely run for one month and just run one 12-hour shift,” he says.

Straley points out the drought means fewer employees and a large reduction in the need to hire for other jobs. For example, he says the gin will do fewer repairs, which will mean less demand for those jobs that also support the cotton ginning industry. He says overall, the drought is doing major damage to the infrastructure in these small towns.

“These cotton gins, we don't have insurance, we don't have anything that that kind of keep our coffers full and keeps us keeps us going,” he adds.

As farmers weigh what to do with the crops barely hanging on, water remains a precious commodity.

“Our price per inch of water in this area has probably doubled in the last five years to the point that it becomes a question of if some of this is even economically valuable to water it or do you just shut it off,” he adds.

Rains fell across portions of  the Texas Panhandle over the weekend, with as much as 7" falling in one location. The areas surrounding Lubbock were not so lucky. Where rain did fall, it only amounted to a trace. And if more rain doesn’t fall soon, there are more tough decisions many farmers here may be forced to make.

“If we don't get a rain in the next 30 days, we're going to have to go through that decision [to walk away from crops] again,” says Ebeling.

Dealing with the Depression of Drought

Battling the drought has forced to make this year are nothing short of depressing for farmers who do everything they can to grow yields.

“Maybe one of the largest challenges in agriculture, honestly, is the weather and the market impacts on our mental health,” says Ebeling.

Concerns about farmers’ mental health could be the biggest issue for Texas farmers this year.

“I try to call all of my farmers every couple of weeks and just have a mental health checkup,” says Straley.

A simple phone call is something he started doing as the reality of the drought set in.

“It really helps these guys to kind of get out of their head a little bit and remember that there is a world outside of the stress that they're living in, in the moment,” he adds.

That short chat comes with a vital reminder in a time when many here feel helpless- and hopeless- staring at these brown and barren fields.

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