FREDERICK, Okla. – When Kent Walker walked through his dusty fields one morning this spring, the ominous signs were right there at his feet. His wheat crop that should have been thick, dark green and thigh-high was thin, brown and barely covered the top of his shoes. It looked like the start of an ugly rerun.
Last year, most of his cotton crop was destroyed by drought. In 2011, almost all his cotton and wheat were stunted or shriveled. Walker sold about a third of his cattle then because he didn't have water and feed. Now, more dry months — compounded by four deadly freezes this spring — threaten once again. And after surveying his fields, white cowboy hat shading his eyes, he sums up his frustration.
"Dadgummit," he says. "... It's very trying. It tries your patience. It tries your faith. Bottom line: Every day you just have to go out and trust in God that all will be fine ... and roll on to the next day."
Walker's resilience echoes across the southwest corner of Oklahoma as fears of a third straight year of drought ripple through this vast prairie where the dry spell has left visible scars: Ponds that are nearly or totally empty. Dead cedar trees. Sprouting weeds, fewer cows, bald pastures that resemble dirt roads instead of lush, green fields.
"You always know that there's going to be a year when you have a failed crop or some sort of disaster," Walker says. "Normally you can manage one year, but when you go to two or three years, you're left questioning your choice of occupation. It can set you back on your heels."
Still, he remains an optimist. Though as much as 80 percent of his wheat may be damaged from the drought and freeze, he sees any losses as a temporary setback. "We won't shut down," says Walker, who farms with his father. "We will get through this one way or another."
The merciless drought that ravaged large sections of the Midwest and Plains is over, disappearing this spring in a dramatic weather reversal: heavy rains and floods swamping fields with mud in many areas. But some farmers and ranchers in parts of the West and the Plains, including southwest Oklahoma, are pondering the prospect of another year of a desert-like landscape and a disappointing harvest.
It's far too soon for predictions. Rain this winter and spring blanketed central and eastern Oklahoma, bringing relief to a state that marked its hottest year ever in 2012 and its driest May-through-December on record, according to Gary McManus, associate state climatologist. But the western third of Oklahoma, including the Panhandle, remains gripped by drought, along with stretches of the central Plains from South Dakota down to west Texas and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada.
For some, this year may be a tipping point, says Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center. "A drought really tests your coping capacity," he says. "You either adapt or you sell out and move on. .... If you're going on year three — those places that are set up best, they're going to survive it — and the others won't."
Two years of heat and far too little rain already have drained Oklahoma agriculture of more than $1.1 billion in direct losses, according to Oklahoma State University. In that time, farmers and ranchers sold nearly one in five of their cattle as ponds and creeks dried up and feed became scarce.
It's a scenario Oklahomans know only too well and dread — parched earth, blowing dust, burned crops. During the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, boiling dark masses of dirt, some thousands of feet high, rolled along, blotting out the sun. That ecological disaster, coupled with the Great Depression, triggered a mass migration west. In the 1950s, there was another devastating dry spell.
This time around, it has rained, just not enough.
In Jackson County, northwest of here, a lake that supplies water for irrigation is only 17 percent full, says Jantz Bain, manager of Humphreys Cooperative in Altus. "For virtually 50 years," he says, "the good Lord has been consistent in letting the lake fill up, and now ..."
His cotton gin hasn't made enough money to break even the last two years, he says, and the drought and freeze packed a one-two punch, already dooming a lot of the county's wheat. "So far, everybody is hanging on by their fingernails," Bain says. "We can't take much more of this ... These people want to grow a crop. That's what they do. It's no different than a doctor with no patients."
Keeff Felty, a fourth-generation farmer in Altus, hasn't been able to grow cotton the last two years. "It's getting old, it's really getting old not being able to harvest anything," he says. "You give it everything you have ... and there's nothing more frustrating than spending all day out there and not having anything to haul away."
Like most farmers, he can tick off good and bad years, just like an avid sports fan remembers his team's winning and losing seasons. There were boom times in 2010: That's when the co-op where he's part-owner processed about 122,000 bales at its cotton gin, he says. The next year, there wasn't enough to run the gin. And in 2012, he says, there were a meager 7,000 bales.
Crop insurance is a safety net — and a salvation — for many farmers. "I don't know anyone who could have stood the last two years without it," Felty says. But it doesn't cover the full costs of replacement or measure how a disaster in the fields ripples down Main Street.
Here in Tillman County — a land of big skies, postcard-sized Western silver belt buckles and relatively few people (9 per square mile) — everyone has a stake in the weather. It's more than farmers and ranchers who suffer from drought.
It's the cotton gin workers with little or nothing to do. The truckers who have less grain to haul. The gas station owner who sells less fuel. The tractor dealer who watches his inventory sit on the lot. The banker who makes fewer loans, resulting in less interest. The merchants who cut back on 4-H donations. The hundreds of wheat harvesters who travel here each summer — and now may now cut their stay short.
And on and on until it reaches the door of the Subway shop owned by Jim Ard, who can measure the number of foot-long sandwiches he sells by how wet or dry it is in any planting season.
"It's very much the domino effect," says Ard, who, like almost everyone here, has a hand in farming (he owns a few cows). "The drought touches everybody, whether you're young or old, no matter what you do."
But it's not always obvious in this county 20 miles north of the Texas border. Drive along and you'll see green horizons, but a few inches below, the soil is dry and hard as concrete, says Aaron Henson, the county's agriculture extension agent. If the drought ended tomorrow, he says, it would take another three to five years for the pastures to fully recover.
With the wheat harvest and cotton planting approaching, nerves are frayed. "People wonder how many times will the crop fail again before someone won't give me more money to buy more time," he says.
Henson says that in the past two years, ranchers in the county — which endured 101 days of 100-degree-plus weather in 2011 — have sold or moved more than half their cattle to greener pastures, elsewhere in Oklahoma or out of state.
Last year, hay became valuable enough to steal. But with just five deputies to patrol 900-square miles, the sheriff's office turned to technology to find the culprits. A global positioning device was tucked in a 1,200-pound bale. When the hay started rolling off a farm, the sheriff was alerted. He followed a pickup, waited until two men hauled away another bale, then made the arrests.
Those thefts are over, but the hope for rain and the danger of more drought loom everywhere.
This spring, one rural preacher has been holding pray-for-rain services every Sunday night. He frequently turns to the New Testament, 2 Chronicles: "If ... I shut up heaven that there be no rain ..."
The city manager has been warily eyeing two lakes that supply Frederick's water; they're now at 37 percent of capacity.
And Ard, the local merchant, has been thinking about the future of Frederick, where the population, nearly 4,000, has shrunk by about 15 percent since 2000.
"This town could dry up," he says. "We have an opportunity to grow or die. Many communities up and down this highway have already died. They're shadows of what they once were. Everybody is running to the city for a better economy. A drought comes along and it can be another nail in the coffin."
It's a legitimate concern, says Ryan McMullen, state director of USDA rural development. In some counties north of here, the oil and gas boom has helped offset drought-related losses. But in towns solely reliant on agriculture, the outlook is dire.
"Everybody has watched this population decline for generations," he says. "There has been a long-term sense of despair, but it now feels this latest drought might be too much to overcome. That's saying a lot for communities that have maintained a population since the Dust Bowl. These are tough, salt-of-the-earth folks that don't call it quits easily."
Louis Box isn't going anywhere. Sitting in his office in a cowhide leather chair, wearing cowhide boots, watching a cattle auction from a live video feed on his computer, the 74-year-old farm supply store owner isn't worried. In more than a half-century of growing wheat and raising cattle, he's seen it all — tornadoes, droughts, hailstorms, insects — sometimes, he says, all in the same year.
"It hasn't been a death blow. Not at all," he says. "I think it's going to slow things down, definitely. If you come back in six months, I might talk differently. But you've got to be an eternal optimist or you wouldn't be farming. ... People are not selling out and leaving. ... There's greater opportunity to make money AND go broke than there ever has been."
Clint Abernathy is staying put, too. At 54, the fourth-generation farmer now has a fifth — his two adult sons — at his side.
Farming, he says, is all about understanding cycles.
"After a long run of good years, we all expected a bad one," he says. "We just didn't expect anything to be so severe.... I'd be lying if I said I don't worry. I do. But you can't let it get the best of you. If this would have happened in my 20s, I would really be taking it hard. Being a bit older, you realize there's nothing you can do."
With two bad years — and possibly a third — Abernathy presses on.
"It gets in your blood," he says. "We'll do it for nothing. We'd never give up. We'll keep trying. It'll turn around. It always has and it always will."
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer. She can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org.