February 17, 2006
Ideas, solutions discussed
By Mike Barnett
Facing the grim possibilities that ranchers will have to continue culling herds and farmers will have little to harvest in Texas this year, agricultural producers from across the state gathered in San Antonio at a drought summit to discuss ideas and offer solutions to the effects of the devastating drought gripping the state of Texas.
Texas Farm Bureau President Kenneth Dierschke said the economic impact of the drought will more than match the effects of Hurricane Rita on the agricultural industry. Farm Bureau sponsored the summit.
"Drought is a slow motion disasterit's a slow and creeping death for plant and animal life and potentially for the agricultural industry," Dierschke said. "Each day without rainfall deepens the crisis for the farm and ranch families in Texas."
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs noted that 2005 was the 12th driest year on record in Texas, with estimates of agricultural losses in the state of $1.5 billion. Most of those losses are livestock related, she said.
Dave Scott, second vice president of the Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, agreed the drought has had a devastating effect on the cattle industry.
"I know in some areas the rainfall amounts are the lowest they have been since the drought of the 1950s," he said. "The Weather Bureau doesn't give us a lot of hope..."
Although cattle prices have been good, Scott said runs at local auctions are telling the drought story.
"First there wasn't any young cows; now you can go to almost any Texas market and see a lot of good, productive cows," he said.
What worries Texas Cooperative Extension Economist Dr. Mark Waller is a dry soil profile and spring planting time just around the corner. Waller noted the winter wheat crop is rated 85 percent poor or very poor, and said the previous record drought losses of around $2.1 billion in 1996 and 1998 included big losses in spring planted crops.
"We haven't even got to spring," Waller said. "The big question is, what happens in the next 15 to 100 days?"
Jim Dawson, representing the Texas Forestry Association and chairman of TFB's Forestry Committee, said the drought's impact goes much further than its effects on traditional agriculture.
In East Texas, the dry weather has allowed loggers to work river bottoms, which is affecting timber markets.
"Usually, this time of year the mills are scrambling to get logs in the mills," Dawson said, referring to usually wet January. "Now, up until recently, you could work anywhere you wanted to. You know how supply and demand is, this is the time timber prices are supposed to be up. And we're in a situation where the mills are taking logs only one or two days a week...in a lot of cases, because they've got too much wood."
And, until recent rains, it was too dry to plant pine seedlings in East Texas. Although Dawson said those rains weren't enough to "break the drought, at least we can plant a few trees."
Compounding the drought problem for farmers and ranchers are escalating energy, seed and fertilizer costs. If it doesn't rain soon, said cotton farmer and Texas Farm Bureau Vice President Lloyd Arthur, farmers will plant alternate crops, fewer acres or no crops at all.
"This drought underscores the strong need of a good farm bill and a strong safety net for agriculture," Arthur said.
Farmers and ranchers from across the state spoke out on the terrible effects of drought in their respective areas, and a recurring theme was one of assistance.
"We're devastated," a Falls County rancher said. "We need some help."
Dan Dierschke, a cattle producer from Travis County and a Texas Farm Bureau state director, said the drought's impact goes far beyond the immediate needs of farmers and ranchers.
"What are the sociological implications for Texas agriculture if we have a huge segment of our community who cannot stay in business?" Dan Dierschke asked. "This is devastation day after day after day. It's not immediate, but for many it's equally significant.
"If we lose producers today, where will a new crop come from? I don't see my kids willing to go back to the farm to face the kind of challenges we face. I hope we can get this message across. Not only are we talking about economic survival, we're talking about our survival of a way of life for rural Texas."
TFB President Kenneth Dierschke said it was proper the federal government stepped in last year to help hurricane victims in their rebuilding efforts. He hopes it will take a hard look at helping producers in Texas.
"In our view, what our government has done in responding to hurricane victims is right, but now Congress and USDA should take proactive steps to alleviate the effects of this drought," Dierschke said. "We hope that we can salvage enough of this year's crop year with various forms of assistance and aid so that there can be another year beyond the dismal conditions we face right now."