18 july 2011

Drought cripples southern US farms

By Gregory Meyer in New York, Financial Times, July 17, 2011

Half of Dahlen Hancock’s cotton fields are dead. The other half are clinging to life.

The 5,800 acres he farms near Lubbock, Texas, are half irrigated and half at the mercy of the clouds. And the past nine months have been the driest in Texas on record.

The Lone Star state is at the epicentre of a once-in-a-generation drought stretching from Arizona to Florida. The US’s southern underbelly is scorched like meat on a grill.

The drought has spawned wildfires, turning grasslands to ash. In Texas, the leading cotton producer in the US, 59 per cent of the cotton crop is in poor condition or worse. Harvests of hard winter wheat, prized for yeasted breads, have plummeted in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas as yields and acreage contracted. Ranchers cannot feed their cattle on parched pastures.

Mr Hancock, a fourth-generation farmer, says the cotton seeds he planted on his 3,000 dryland acres never germinated. “All I see is dry, barren farmland. The weeds really haven’t even grown,” he says.
His irrigated crop is also “right on the edge”, as temperatures in Lubbock have hovered near 38C all month. Last month was the hottest June in Texas on record, breaking the previous peak in 1953.

The pain is spreading to businesses that serve the farms. West of Mr Hancock, the Meadow Farmers Co-op Gin – the machine that strips cotton fibres from the seeds – will hire only one 16-person crew at autumn harvest time, rather than the two round-the-clock crews that handled last year’s bumper crop.

“I am hoping for a third of what we ginned last year,” says Dan Jackson, general manager. “But with each day that we don’t get measurable moisture, that kind of dims.”

Texas grew 43 per cent of last year’s 18m-bale cotton crop in the US, the world’s top exporter of the fibre, with the main cotton lands in the high plains encircling Lubbock. The US Department of Agriculture last week cut its forecast for this year’s domestic cotton crop by 1m bales to 16m, as farmers abandoned a record 30 per cent of their fields.
In May, the drought had already caused $1.5bn in agricultural losses, a number that is sure to rise as the drought persists, according to the Texas Agrilife Extension Service. The USDA has declared most of Texas a primary disaster area, making farmers eligible for emergency benefits.

The state has more than 13m cattle, more than any other. But the size of the herd, dwindling for years, may shrink faster as ranchers are forced to sell calves and breeding cows they cannot feed.

“There’s no green,” says George Enloe, a cattle broker in Amarillo, Texas. “It looks like the dead of winter, except when you roll the window down it’s 100 degrees (38C).”

The drought began about a year ago. Rain stopped falling last autumn, and has remained scarce partly because La Niña, the Pacific weather phenomenon, steered moisture away during the winter. Now an inert dome of broiling air appears clamped over much of the south. With little evaporation from dry soils, thunderstorms do not form, says Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

Old-timers are comparing the situation to a legendary “big drought” of the 1950s. The parallel is not encouraging, as that one lasted years.
“What sets this one apart is that it is extremely intense, although at this time relatively shortlived,” says Mark Svoboda, climatologist at the national drought mitigation centre at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Although the situation in the US is helping to buoy cotton above its average cost of production, global prices have been falling. An intense rally last year spurred farmers elsewhere, notably Australia and India, to plant more cotton. Textile mills have also responded to costly cotton by weaving more polyester into fabrics.

The USDA estimates the just-harvested domestic hard winter wheat crop will this year total just 791m bushels, down from 1bn last year. Wheat prices, which took off last year after a grain export ban was declared in the Black Sea, have remained supported by the dismal US outlook.
The drought has led some in Texas to wish for a hurricane to attack the heat dome from the Gulf of Mexico. Arlene, the first named storm of the season, doused a sliver of southern Texas in late June.

“They can be a life saver,” said Rosalee Coleman, a Live Oak county cattle rancher and immediate past president of the Texas Independent Cattlemen’s Association.

“Of course, we don’t wish anyone harm. I always wish that it would go between Corpus Christi and Brownsville because that is ranchland. There’s not a lot of houses and a hurricane can blow across there and not do any damage – then it curves up and we get all the moisture.”

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