David Claiborne spends his days cultivating onions and turning soil in preparation for this year's vegetable crops.
He's optimistic because his sweet onions are off to a good start, and recent rain provided substantial moisture for his fields.
But underlying that spirit is concern as Claiborne realizes East Texas might be seeing the same weather pattern it saw last year, when severe drought gripped the region. That drought, with day after day of dry conditions and 100-plus temperatures, cost him 80 percent of his onion crop, he said.
This year, he said, he's prepared to irrigate to avoid the same results, but he is optimistic.
Claiborne, who farms about 150 acres around the Mount Selman and Jacksonville areas, is among East Texas farmers who are cautious as they approach the spring and summer seasons. They hope for a good yield but are preparing for the dry and warm conditions they faced during last year's drought.
Onion production in 2011 was 354 million pounds and worth $56.3 million, up from 284.1 million pounds worth $139.8 million in 2010, according to data from the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Potato production in 2011 was 548.7 million pounds, up from 514.3 million pounds in 2010.
For tomatoes, data is limited because the U.S. Department of Agriculture discontinued production and value estimates after 2009, as tomatoes dropped below the publication threshold, Texas Department of Agriculture Communications Director Bryan Black said via email. However, in 2009, tomato production was at 11.2 million pounds, a value of $6.5 million.
Ms. Guinn said last year was particularly difficult because she didn't anticipate the severe drought.
“It's been hot and dry, but not together like last year. Usually you can compensate, but the combination is what made it hard,” she said, adding that she lost her entire fall crop last year.
That's why she is preparing this year by rotating ground and concentrating more on the land where wells are available for irrigation.
She said she had to quit irrigating her crops when pond water dried up last year, but she hopes well water this year can sustain the crop.
“We're hoping we can irrigate this fall if we have to,” Ms. Guinn said. “There's not much else we can do. We already use the irrigation system as best we can.”
She remains optimistic as summer approaches.
She estimated that two acres of tomatoes will be planted at a time, and she would like to yield at least one or 1 1/2 of those two acres.
Claiborne and Ms. Guinn's sentiments are shared by many East Texas farmers, who are doing what they can to prepare for the spring and summer, agriculture officials said.
Chad Gulley, Smith County extension agent of agricultural resources, said the drought was “pretty intense” as far as last year's crop, but this year farmers and ranchers are optimistic.
“We have received more rainfall from September even to recently, (and) waterways are back and running again, and hopefully runoff will continue to fill the reservoirs,” he said. “There is soil moisture there. A lot of people again have broken their ground and allowed water to get into the root zone. … I think people still are preparing in case it turns out dry.”
He said farmers specifically are looking at items such as drip irrigation or another system for supplemental water.
Some farmers, he said, are growing crops in a greenhouse, where conditions can be controlled.
“In the field it's hard to control weather. People (have) to grow certain crops and wait for other crops,” Gulley said.
Additionally, he said he received inquiries about putting in a specialty crop like pomegranates.
“We've had people looking at some of those options,” he said. “The warmer weather makes people want to get out and garden.”
Gulley said if current weather patterns continue and East Texas receives consistent rainfall, he expects a good yield.
“It's always a gamble, but I think people will plant …,” he said. “People are still optimistic that it can't be as bad (as last year) … We're just all optimistic that we're coming out of this drought.”
He said he's noticed that soil sample numbers go up following a dry year because farmers want to know their soil conditions.
“We have seen a lot of activity with people sampling fields and pastures,” he said. “That's always been the case when we've had a bad year. People really get concerned about fertilizer and materials. The science shows if you do a better job of providing fertilizer nutrients, even in a dry year, you will get better yields.”
Young said he also noticed that fertilizer prices rose earlier this year, and he expects prices to head upward as farmers get further into the growing season.
In January 2011, nitrogen was 57 cents a pound, which rose to 62 cents per pound in May 2011 and 70 cents per pound in October 2011, he said. As of two weeks ago, the price had settled in at 67 cents per pound.
Young said when the price of nitrogen is between 65 and 70 cents per pound, it means the typical farmer using nitrogen fertilizer and trying to grow hay for a 1,000-pound round bail has to get $65 to $70 per round bale to pay for the harvesting and fertilizer.
Therefore, the economics of using nitrogen fertilizer to grow grass for cows is a tough business, he said, so farmers are using alternative sources such as broiler litter.
“It's a very nutrient-rich manure. … much richer than other animal manures, and you can afford to haul it farther,” Young said.
Overall, he said the perspective he sees among farmers is to plant as if it will be a decent year.
“If you sit in fear that it's going to be a dry year, you won't do anything, and you may miss an opportunity to make money,” Young said. “Farmers are not sitting. They're still optimistic and expect it to be a good year, but they try to do what they can to make sure they produce a good crop.”
He added that people are “aware we could have a dry year.”
“Yet, they're making plans and moving forward … They're cautiously optimistic,” he said. “They're preparing to grow hay and to have grass and they're using good production practices.”
Shane Harrington, staff forester and farm bill coordinator with the Texas Forest Service, said like farmers, landowners are “really being cautious” because of last year's drought.
Landowners normally plant trees in late March or early April, he said, but areas were dried up until last month, so a lot of them will wait until next planting season. The city of Tyler canceled this year's community tree-planting event due to weather uncertainty. Many of the trees planted in last year's event did not make it.
“Landowners are a little leery to plant trees. Over the last months, East Texas has received rainfall. There's enough soil to facilitate planting, but the equal chance of rain and dry conditions is continuing,” Harrington said.
Although that's true, Claiborne said he continues to have a positive outlook for the coming season.
“There's always concern, ‘Is it going to turn out right?' he said. But “at the moment I think it's looking good for East Texas produce.”