Eric Gay  /  AP
Gene Corrigan looks at freshly planted seeds on his farm in La Pryor, Texas, on March 13. He and other farmers across much of Texas are again facing drought conditions and must decide whether to plant crops and hope for rain or cut their losses now.
updated 3/26/2008 11:45:03 AM ET 2008-03-26T15:45:03

Hal Jessee looks at a shovelful of dirt and assesses it as only a lifelong farmer can.

"It's not looking good," says Jessee, 83, who farms 400 acres about 100 miles southwest of San Antonio. "If you go down, you get dry dirt. ... It should be wet all the way down."

With his land consumed by drought, Jessee probably isn't going to plant milo on three-quarters of his farm acreage this year. As a dry land farmer, he relies on rainfall to keep the ground moist enough to support his crops.

Jessee said the .7 inches of rain he got earlier this month provided the first measurable moisture in six months. His land is visibly dry and dust devils spring up with the wind.

For farmers in a large swath of land west and south of San Antonio, the downpours of last summer that in some cases threatened to ruin crops have all but disappeared, leaving them to make hard decisions about whether to plant and hope for rain or cut their losses now.

Last July, the state was declared drought-free for the first time in at least a decade. No more.

"It was so wet, then when it quit, it quit," Jessee said.

'Like going to Las Vegas'
Gene Corrigan, who lives just a few miles up the road from Jessee, got a full inch of rain earlier this month. He's taking the gamble and planting at least 200 acres of milo — out of 600 acres he farms.

"You just never know. It's just like going to Las Vegas," Corrigan said.

Except for east Texas, the state ranges from "abnormally dry" to some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Much of Zavala County, where Jessee and Corrigan live, is in an extreme drought — the second-worst category. All or parts of 10 other nearby counties are also reporting extreme drought.

"In this case it was weird because 2007 started out great as far as rainfall. We were on pace to have the wettest year in Texas on record for the state as a whole" until rainfall dropped off around September, said Texas State Climatologist and Texas A&M University professor John Nielsen-Gammon.

"If it were evenly distributed through the year we'd be fine but it wasn't. Unfortunately, Texas weather has this nasty habit of alternating between too much rain and too little rain."

The state averaged about 37 inches of rain for 2007, nearly 10 inches above normal, said Victor Murphy, of the National Weather Service Southern Region Headquarters. It was the seventh wettest year on record going back to 1895.

Planting for crops such as corn, cotton and grain sorghum, or milo, usually begins about now in the area that is currently driest, said Travis Miller, an AgriLife Extension specialist at A&M. Planting can be put off for a few weeks, but not indefinitely.

"What they'll do is say, 'I'm not going to plant corn, I'll plant (grain) sorghum. Well, I'll grow cotton,'" Miller said. "It just goes downhill from there."

Jessee plans to plant on 100 acres of irrigated land. Other growers who have irrigation systems may not skip the planting season entirely, but that creates another problem.

Irrigation costs rise
Without a natural source of water, growers will run irrigation systems and pumps overtime, which will increase their energy costs and eventually draw down reservoirs replenished by last year's rain.

"Up to now it's taken twice as much irrigation water to grow crops," said Ed Ritchie, who farms in several drought-stricken areas. "It's just been extremely dry, very unusual strong winds. It sucks the moisture right out of the ground."

The wind, Nielsen-Gammon said, can be blamed on La Nina, which creates dry, warm winters and causes strong, drying winds from the southwest and west.

The drought also hurts ranchers. Joe Hargrove, president of the Southwest Livestock Exchange in Uvalde, said some cows are already coming in weak and underweight from the lack of green grazing grass. He said some ranchers are selling cattle now, fearing that the drought will be even worse later on.

Miller and Bryan Black, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Agriculture, said it's too early to estimate the economic impact on growers, ranchers and consumers.

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