Don Marble, Don Langston and Bill Gilbreath have farmed through a lot of dry spells.
Together, the three have put in more than 150 years raising cotton in the unforgiving environment of West Texas. And this year they’re facing one of the toughest droughts they’ve seen in a long time.
But it might not be the worst.
Gilbreath, 80, recalls 1944 and 1945 when he was a teenager farming with his father near Cone, Texas, in Crosby County.
“We were dryland farming,” he recalls, “and we didn’t plant any cotton those two years. We made a little bit of wheat, five or 10 bushels an acre.”
He says one year they got about an inch of rain and tried to plant in the furrow. “Cotton sprouted but we didn’t get any more rain and it all died. In 1946 my father started with irrigation wells. We had big water until the 1970s, but we’re about out of water now.”
Marble, 79, recalls 1980 as a particularly bad year for cotton in South Plains, Texas. “We were very dry in 1980,” he says. “We’d had good moisture all through 1979 and into the spring of 1980. We had a good wheat crop and got the cotton planted. But hot weather came on as we cut the wheat and it never let up. There was not a cloud in the sky.”
Langston, 71, who farms in Lubbock County, said 1998 “was a bugger. We got rain to get the cotton up, but we got no more until August. We made from one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half bales per acre under the pivots.”
1974 also bad
He says 1974 was also a bad year. “It was so bad that year a lot of farmers plowed the cotton up to get ready for the next year. Some tried sunflowers and found out that volunteer sunflowers were hard to control.”
Langston says every year he bought a new cotton stripper turned out to be a bad year for cotton production.
They remember the 1950s drought as the worst long-term dry spell they’ve endured. Marble says the current drought is extremely bad, but it follows about six years of very good crops and so far is only a year long.
He has rainfall records for Floyd County, where he farms, going back to 1925. He started farming on his own in 1951, a year when the cotton allotment was lifted. “The Korean War started and we could plant all the cotton we wanted, until about 1955,” he says.
“We made a good crop in 1951 and then it just quit raining.” His dad had started drilling irrigation wells back in 1948. “We made big wheat and cotton crops in 1949, across the whole area. Rain and hail storms hit the 1950 crop and we didn’t harvest anything.”
Floyd County received 18.12 inches of rain in 1951, according to Marble’s records. In 1952, rainfall total dropped to 13.35 inches. Only 13.24 inches fell the next year and the 1954 total was even worse, 10.56 inches. Things got a bit better in 1955, with 22.04 inches, but 1956 was a disaster with only 8.45 inches of rainfall.
“The drought broke in April of 1957,” Marble says. The county received more than 4 inches of rain in April of that year followed by 6.32 inches in May and 9.72 inches in June. Total for the year topped 31 inches.
“We got a lot of rain in May of 1957,” he says. “We finally got cotton going and we got rain until September.”
The next few years followed typical rainfall patterns with yearly averages around 20 inches. In 1965, Floyd County got only 12.12 inches, but totals remained above 16 inches until 1978. In 1980, yearly total was more than 19 inches but a big chunk of that came in two months — 3.95 inches in May and 4.83 in September.
Floyd County fared a little better in 1980 than the area around Lubbock, where only 15.86 inches fell.
Langston has farmed on his own since 1959. “I’ve made 52 crops,” he says. “My son-in-law is farming it this year.”
Langston’s grandfather farmed and so did his father until 1934. “Cotton came up that year in September,” Langston says, “so dad started working in a bank. He took over the farm from my grandfather in 1956.”
He also remembers the drought years of the 1950s. He and Marble wonder if the 2010/2011 drought might be the beginning of another 1950s-like dry period. “It very well could be,” Langston says.
“I wonder if what we’re seeing now is similar,” Marble says.
Has unique characteristics
All three agree that the current drought might not be as bad as those of the 1950s, the 1944 or 1945 drought or the one that hit in 1980. But they all say the current one has some unique characteristics.
“This drought is not worse than the 1950s droughts,” Marble says. “But I don’t recall ever seeing this kind of hot weather and high winds that dry out everything. We can water a crop and in two days it’s all gone.”
He says last year was similar to 1951. “Then in 1952 we got no rain and we got no rain in 1956.”
Langston says the heat and wind combination make this drought especially hard. “The hot wind feels like a blast furnace,” he says. “Wind has been blowing at 20 to 25 miles per hour all day long and gusting to 50 miles per hour. It doesn’t take long for that hot wind to burn cotton if we haven’t been sand-fighting. I see dust devils everywhere.
“Even with irrigation, the heat and wind pull water out of the soil and seems to burn the plants a little. Everyone knew it was going to be dry when they planted and they cut as many corners as they could,” he says.
“For this time of year, conditions are as bad as I’ve ever seen.”
In 1998, conditions were “about as close to 2011 as any I remember,” he says. “We had a combination of heat, wind and drought. We had a lot of 100-degree days and a lot of wind that summer.”
“I have never seen it blow like this,” Gilbreath says, “and I’ve been here 80 years, except for four years in the service.”
He’s farmed on his own for 57 years. “I farmed in 1949 and 1950, then went into the service for four years and have been here ever since. I’m going to make another crop. I don’t plan on retiring.”
They plant a combination of irrigated and dryland cotton. They expect nothing from the dryland fields this year.
“I planted a lot of dryland cotton,” Marble says. “None of it is up. It will not come up; it’s too late. And we have thousands and thousands of acres in the area that will be lost.”
“Dryland acreage will make nothing,” Langston says. “It’s already nearly too late.” He says his son-in-law has about 55 percent of the acreage planted dryland.
Irrigated cotton also hurt
Irrigated cotton will not perform up to usual standards either, they say. “Most all of our irrigated cotton is up,” Gilbreath says. “It should be alright if we can keep it wet but I don’t know if we can.”
“Our irrigated cotton is up,” Marble says, “but if it doesn’t rain it will be hurt. We’ve been making two or three bales per acre but we might be proud to make just over a bale this year.”
They say the heat and wind dry the soil out almost as soon as they can apply water.
Langston says his son-in-law is switching from sprinkler irrigation hoses to drag hoses every other row, to conserve water.
Marble says planting a half a circle in cotton and half in wheat helps conserve water. “And no-till helps. We are using a lot of no-till.”
They are also running sand fighters to diminish damage from wind and blowing sand. “We’ve been over all the irrigated acreage,” Langston says. “We’re trying to sand fight dryland fields.”
They talk about how long this drought has persisted and all say they’ve had no appreciable rainfall since last July.
“We’ve had barely one inch of rain since October,” Langston says. “We got about a half-inch Oct. 21, two-tenths about May 7 or May 8 and three-tenths last week.”
“We’ve had no significant rain in South Plains since last July,” Marble says, “so we haven’t had rain in almost a year.”
One of the most unique aspects of the 2011 drought is that farmers have never had a dry spell this bad with cotton selling for nearly $1.30 a pound. Marble says he sold a little cotton for a bit better than $1.50 a pound last year. “I contracted about two thirds at what seemed like a good price at the time,” he says.
He turned down one offer of 99.5 cents a pound. “I told them I had to have $1 a pound because I’d never sold dollar cotton before,” he says. He got it. “Later it went to $1.25 and then I sold some for $1.55, I think.”
They’ll rely on crop insurance to make up part of what they would get if they could make a full crop this year.
“We could contract now for about $1.30 a pound,” Langston says. “But we have good insurance coverage and the guarantee of $1.23 a pound will help. That’s up from 72 cents last year.”
They also get help this year on loss of cottonseed revenue.
Marble says the prolonged drought and likely abandonment of many thousands of acres — some estimates predict losing up to 2 million acres of dryland cotton — will affect more than just the farmers struggling to make this crop.
This drought will hurt our infrastructure,” he says. “The boys who are spraying and fertilizing will be hurt.” Gins and other support industries also will suffer from lost acreage and reduced production on the acres that remain.
Langston says cotton continues to be the best option for the area “year in and year out.”
The three have been through tough times before and agree that hanging on is the best they can do. “We may not make two or three bales an acre this year,” Langston says. “But I want to know that I gave it everything I had. I’ve seen some similar droughts but I got through them and kept on going.”