Stephens and his peers in the agriculture industry are not facing quite the same obstacles his ancestors did in the Great Depression or Dust Bowl, but the drought sapping Texas of its most precious element and the economic downturn at its parallel is resulting in parched soil, scant harvests, and thinned herds.
The drought pressing Texas’ agriculture industry — which is responsible for 10 percent of the state’s gross domestic product — is pushing farmers and ranchers to the brink. The state’s 247,000 farms and ranches covering 127 million acres haven’t had a whole year of rain since 2017. Almost 24 million of Texas’ population lives in drought-facing areas.
As of the first of August, less than 1 percent of the state was not facing some level of drought or abnormal dryness.
And according to the state’s climatologist, there is no end in sight to these conditions for at least another six months.
That leaves Texas’ agriculture industry with little to hold onto in the near future after already withering in the elongated dry spell.
Sam Snyder, a rancher from Moran whose family’s raised livestock on that land for 139 years, said this past winter was one of the driest he’s ever experienced. “It went from good to horrible faster than I’ve ever seen,” he told The Texan.
To sustain his herd, which includes 600 female cattle that are the lifeblood of his craft, Snyder is having to make do with less and less water and feed.
Going into the summer, which has seen temperatures across the state eclipse triple digits nearly every day, Snyder’s water supplies were on par, but then the sweltering began. “I’ve never seen water evaporate that quickly, and a tank that was good last week might not be good the next,” he said.
Snyder says he’s close to thinning his herd, a measure many ranchers have taken or are close to taking across the state. “I have to take the price for my cows that the market gives me, which right now is a little bit disheartening,” he said.
Without enough sustenance, he’s faced with selling off his cows earlier than he hopes to — to cut his losses before they become overbearing.
The feed limitations are seriously inhibiting ranchers’ ability to nurture their herds. With no crops, ranchers have trouble obtaining hay or wheat, which Snyder says are unavailable within a hundred miles of his ranch. And with much of the grass degraded by the sweltering heat and lack of water, that doesn’t leave many options for the cattle.
Half-measures are being deployed with range cubes — a cheap high-fiber, high-protein supplement for livestock — and what little hay can be found.
While having no livestock, Stephens faces similar issues with his fields of cotton.
Stephens’ property encompasses both irrigated and dry land cotton fields, the latter of which is struggling with sand dunes taller than his crop. The arid dirt coupled with dry wind draws up mounds of sand, making farming next to impossible without remedy.
That remedy is flattening them out, which requires running a tractor, which requires diesel.
“Fossil fuel is the lifeblood of farms,” Stephens said, lamenting the rising cost of fuel caused by high demand from all sectors of fuel use after the pandemic; low supply caused by lethargic production revival and a stagnating refining fleet; and continuous monetary printing driving up inflation.
Inflation can be self-driving. Higher fuel costs beget higher food prices, which inflates the cost of labor, and raises the cost of fuel and all other commodities that labor produces.
Farmers across the state are penny-pinching as much as possible with little return expected on their crops this year. According to Stephens, it’s cheaper to spread de-weeding chemicals across his fields using an airplane than it is to use the tractor because of the price of diesel.
One reason for the through-the-roof diesel price is that the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations arm that governs cargo shipping, altered its fuel standards to prohibit the use of bunker oil to fuel cargo ships. Instead, these haulers are now using diesel, increasing the demand for the already limited supply.
That decision is part of a larger global shift, gradual as it may be, away from fossil fuels and increasingly against the way the agriculture industry operates — a move Snyder sees as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and about which he didn’t mince words.
“‘Sustainability’ is someone like me,” he said, addressing the growing ranks of activists lobbying for more government crackdowns of operations they allege are problematic. “I do not rape and pillage my country nor my cattle or I wouldn’t be in business. I really get tired of people ragging on us as ‘factory farms.’”
Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have ramped up political pressure on “concentrated animal feeding operations,” alleging that they mistreat their livestock.
The higher premium now placed on diesel crowds out traditional users like the farmers and ranchers — lest they’re willing to shell out more and more cash for the product.
At some point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in.
“Five-dollar diesel is a killer,” said Snyder, “the fuel price absolutely is the killer ‘round here.”
Not only is the unavailability of feed close to forcing his hand to thin the herd, but the larger a herd, the more fuel is used to monitor its ranks.
Should a machine break, it could take up to a month for the part to come in due to the logjammed supply chain — that’s a month without access to whatever critical service that machine provides.
Fuel isn’t the only commodity stretching the wallets of Stephens and his peers. Fertilizer, he says, is “nearly out of reach.”
He usually orders six truckloads of fertilizer each summer but so far has only purchased one.
In total, Snyder says input costs — fuel, feed, supplements, etc. — have doubled.
“When you don’t know where you’re going to get farm parts, or feed, or whatever — it’s unsettling,” Snyder added. “But we’re going to make it, just need some rain and colder weather.”
In the meantime, the State of Texas has stepped in to try and provide some relief. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott renewed the drought disaster declaration for 189 counties.
Among the measures it’s triggered is a paring back of regulations that limit the amount of product farmers and ranchers may haul at once, going from 8-foot wide loads to 12-feet; lowering property appraisals through the 1-d-1 application, extended to farmers even if they fail to harvest crops, rather than using the land’s commercial value; and qualification for U.S. Department of Agriculture transportation aid.
But even when sustained rain arrives, the economic turbulence is not expected to evaporate with the dry spell.
“When the drought breaks, the prices will go astronomical,” the rancher said, pointing to the likely limited future supply of beef and crops after herds are thinned and harvests are missed. Like oil and gas operations, it takes time for supply to reach equilibrium with demand.
The Texas Farm Bureau estimates it will take between two and four years for the cattle supply to recover after this prolonged drought.
Crop supply may have an easier time returning than livestock, but there’ll still be no swift recovery.
“In the meantime,” Stephens said, “we’re just going to tend the land as best we can.”
“We’ve been going through the dog days of summer,” he lamented, with no end in sight.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.