East Texas Agriculture Not Flourishing, Surviving
By MELISSA CROWE and KELLY GOOCH
LINDALE -- Past the acres of dead crops and scorched trees caused by one of the worst droughts in Texas' history, the Macevivius' 5-acre farm in Lindale hangs on.
"We let the berries go," owner Phyllis Macevicius said. "We're watering just enough to keep plants alive. They're not flourishing, but they're on survival."
She moved the fig trees and grapevines, blanc du bois and black Spanish varieties, to a greenhouse at the back of the farm. With recent $600 hikes in water bills and a projected loss of $11,000, all she hopes for is an even break.
"This was my dream," Mrs. Macevicius said. "This was the year we were supposed to make it."
Hailed as the most costly drought in Texas, agriculture losses could exceed $5.2 billion statewide if the drought continues, officials said Wednesday.
This year's record-breaking drought exceeds the previous record of $4.1 billion set in 2006, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.
According to the National Weather Service, Tyler received .08 inches of rain in July, while normal rainfall is at 2.16 inches.
June rainfall totaled 1.10 inches, and normal rainfall is 3.65 inches. May totaled 2.28 inches, while normal rainfall is 4.46 inches.
One Jacksonville farmer said water is taking its toll on her vegetable crops.
Wanda Guinn grows squash, potatoes, onions, okra, squash and tomatoes on about 60 acres in the Jacksonville area.
Her first two squash crops did well, but the last two are not producing well without water. Her okra crop is producing about one-fourth of what it should be, even with irrigation, she said, and her onions were smaller than usual. As far as tomatoes, she said the second crop this year was about 50 percent, and she will not be able to finish out her last crop.
"We lost it completely, and the crop we should have right now is down to just the minimum," she said. "We will probably finish hauling water on it this week, pick what we can and walk away from it."
Ms. Guinn said the property's creek has been dry for awhile, so she used water from another pond to irrigate the crops.
"You just can't put enough water down because the heat dries it out," she said. "You can't get enough water in the ground to do it any good."
The hard year has also taken a financial toll. Tomato sales are likely off by about one-third so far, she said. But it has been a learning experience for Ms. Guinn.
She plans to plant next year's crops near a good, deep well or a sufficient pond.
"We've had dry years and we've had hot years, but we haven't had the drought and the excessive heat together," she said. "It's the combination that made it really tough. We're revamping next year to where we'll have more water available."
Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists reported that crops count for about $3.2 billion in losses and livestock accounts for $2.06 billion.
Lost hay production was valued at $750 million, cotton had $1.8 billion in losses, corn had $327 million, wheat had $243 million and sorghum had $63 million, according to the AgriLife service.
The losses also represent 27.7 percent of the average value of agricultural production over the last four years, according to the AgriLife service.
To remain comparable to past drought loss estimates, Wednesday's loss estimates do not include losses to fruit and vegetable producers, horticultural and nursery crops, or other grain and row crops.
AgriLife Extension Agronomist Dr. Travis Miller, a member of the Governor's Drought Preparedness Council, said in a news release that this year's drought "will have a lasting impact on Texas agriculture."
For much of the state, the drought began in September. October through July 2011 was the driest 10-month period recorded in Texas's weather, Miller said in a news release.
Chad Gullex, an agriculture extension agent for Smith County, said East Texas' farmers and ranchers have not lost hope.
"A lot of them are positive and feel like if we can get some rain this fall, they can still come out of this thing and be OK," Gullex said.
Farmers and ranchers relying on irrigation are not immune to the drought.
Dr. Charles Long, a professor and resident director of research at the Research and Extension Center at Overton, said irrigation water does not have the effect it normally would because of the high evaporation rates and high temperatures.
As demands on irrigation water increase in the absence of rain, the water supply is not available, he said.
Mrs. Macevivius said after her pond ran dry and Lindale implemented water rationing, she worked out an agreement with a local water authority so she could water her farm plants.
She said the only way her field is surviving is off the drip irrigation system she installed this spring to conserve water.
"There isn't anything we can do but water conservation and to hope we get rain," Mrs. Macevicius said.
Long said the impact of this extended drought is severe and felt in all sectors of agriculture.
"You know when it's tough, it's tough," Long said. "Any time you are in a business affected by the weather then you're taking a risk and part of the risk in farming and ranching is a drought."
Katie Snyder, director of agricultural sciences at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, encouraged producers who are struggling to contact their county farm bureau and the Texas Department of Agriculture to receive information on relief and disaster assistance programs.
"Sometimes you just get to a point where another day without rain kind of hurts your feelings after awhile, but it's good to call those organizations and get some advice," she said. "Sometimes you just need to talk with someone in the industry."
Ms. Snyder said she also will be educating students this year on drought and how they can still be productive in those conditions, even if it is on a reduced scale.
Long said surviving the drought is a matter of "keeping your resources together as much as you can."
"There's a mental drag of having to (go through drought) and it's tough because of the financial side," Long said. "I like to hear reports of rain because I know it still can. ... I don't know what will bring more smiles than a good rain for a few days."