As Drought Continues, Some Texans Resort to Feeding the Wildlife
Biblical Dry Spell Forcing Some to Reconsider Our Prodigal Way of Life
When my cousin Rob Abbott and his wife Liz retired in 2007 and moved from Houston 50 miles northwest to Austin County, they thought they’d found paradise on their new 35-acre homestead. There was a clear flowing stream full of fish, “solid red wildflowers” everywhere, wild blueberries, and all kinds of trees — black walnut, pecan, several oak species. “It was green and healthy, a wet, lush environment,” Rob says.
Photo by Robert Kuykendall
But 16 months ago the rains failed. Since then, his home has seen only 7 inches of rain; normally, the region gets 35 to 40 inches of precipitation a year. The land around Rob’s home is no longer green and full of wildflowers. “I walk in my backyard and I’m walking on crusted, dead vegetation and dirt,” he says. “The god darn dust and dirt color everything gray.” Liz no longer rides her bike because, she says, “I’m afraid of the dust; I have asthma.”
Most of Texas and Oklahoma, as well as parts of New Mexico, are now classified as being in the midst of an “exceptional” drought — the worst classification possible. The lack of rainfall has left the region so parched that the land is close to dying. Rob and Liz have taken to feeding the wildlife just to make sure they survive. Each morning Rob hauls corn and Purina Antler Mix down to his deer feeder and checks the water tank to make sure the deer can drink. Every day they worry about water in their well. “Is today the day we are going to watch pressure drop in the well?” Rob wonders.
While Rob tends to the deer, Liz starts boiling her first pot of water and sugar for the hummingbirds — they suck several bottles dry a day. She also stocks the other bird feeders with 80 pounds of birdseed and 25 pounds of sunflower seeds. The sugar, birdseed, and deer feed (more than 300 pounds a month) is costly. Rob and Liz are spending about $150 a month to keep the wildlife alive.
For Liz and Rob, that’s a generous gesture of ecological solidarity. For nearby ranchers and farmers who are seeing their crops wither and their herds thin, the drought is a real existential threat.
“When I walk into my pastures the grass is all brown.” says Rob Luedeker, a 54-year old who works 250 acres of long-held family land. “Where there were animals grazing, it’s bare dirt. The animals look at you kind of hungry, as if asking ‘When you gonna bring me something to eat?’ And you have nothing to feed them.”
Luedeker is down to 30 cattle. His cotton crop “turned out” but the trees in his family’s prized pecan orchard withered. “You walk underneath a healthy pecan tree you get good shade,” but this year “the trees look half bare.” He expects many to die. No longer able to support his family form the land alone, he drives 45 miles each day to work as a technician at a Texas A&M Extension Service research center on rice, where he mows the grass, prepares rice for milling, and “fixes what’s broke.” An A&M graduate in agricultural education, he also works three nights a week washing dishes at a local restaurant. “Any little bit helps,” he says. “We still got a lot of bills.”
Luedeker hopes for the best: “Everyday is one day closer to rain,” he says. And when the rain doesn’t come he has the grim consolation of gallows humors: “Obama settled the national debt by selling Texas to the devil,” he jokes.
Cattle ranchers’ predicament is exacerbated by an entirely different kind of extreme weather in other parts of the country. While Texas and Oklahoma hayfields die of thirst and the drought strips the nutrients from what few grasses the cattle find, massive rains and flooding have reduced Midwestern grain harvests. That has increased the price of feed.
Harvey Ermis, 68, another Austin County rancher, says that no one can afford to buy feed. “Hay costs $100 to $150 for a round 5’ by 5’ bale,” he says. “Last year it ran $45 to $50. Used to be we’d ship 600 to 700 pound calves to Kansas to fatten on winter wheat up to 1100 pounds. But Kansas doesn’t have winter wheat this year.” So more and more Texas cows and calves get sold for slaughter.
It will take “ten years for the herds to recover if we get rain this winter,” Ermis says. “If we don’t get rain this winter, by next spring or summer Texas herds will drop by another 50 percent.” The cows that are not sold will not likely give birth. Ermis says “they won’t breed if too thin.”
Although Ermis told me “we can weather the storm,” in his darkest moments he has doubts. “A lot of the cattle being sold now are seed stock. Young bulls are gone. Whole genetic lineages dating back many decades are being lost. You can’t put a price value on herd genetics.”
Moreover, the devastation of the cattle herds is occurring at a time when many ranchers are in their 50s and 60s. They’ve spent 30 or more years building up their herds — their entire adult lives — only to face a future knowing they’re not likely to ever see those numbers again. At the same time, Ermis worries that the drought and herd sell-offs “will not allow the new generation of ranchers to come in.” A whole way of life, for many families a legacy dating back a century or longer, might well end: old ranchers with no younger ranch buyers will subdivide their land and sell it in small parcels to people retiring from the cities.
“This is a devastating loss,” Ermis says. “This drought is a slow bleeding catastrophe. We don’t see a future.”
By mid-September, Texas wildfires have burned some 3.7 million acres and about 2,630 homes. Austin County’s Bastrop State Park lost most of its beautiful pine trees in a recent fire. When volunteer firefighters arrived at the scene they found that the fire had consumed not just the trees, but also tree roots. The land was so destroyed that the firefighters sank into the soil when they entered the post-burn area.
The record-high temperatures, the slowly dying trees, and the emaciated livestock and wildlife have made moved some Texans to an apocalyptic mindset.
Reverend Robert Stutes of the Bellville United Methodist Church in the Austin county seat says parishioners ask him, “Do you think these are our end times?” Meanwhile, many of his church members are reluctant to attribute the drought to anthropogenic climate change. Stutes says he hears his church members say: “I can’t believe how hot it is, but it’s not global warming.” Global warming in rural Texas, Stutes reports, is thought of as “an Al Gore thing, something political.”
Indeed. From just a handful of interviews, it appears that many of the victims of the Texas drought are reluctant to think carefully about global warming. Part of the reason is because some climate models predict that this dry spell could be the start of a mega drought. Such a possibility is too threatening to countenance and leaves people with little hope. So they look for other answers and explanations.
Reverend Stutes has tried to respond to the situation by asking his congregation to think in terms of long cycles. “Everything I read tells me these cycles of drought and moisture are more common than we think,” he says. Consequently, in his private conversations with members he has started to gently say, “Sometimes the way we live is not adjusted to these cycles. We face serious, serious rearrangements of how we live with the land.” And he alludes to this idea in some prayers, “Lord, give us the wisdom to live right in all circumstances.”
But he hasn’t yet brought it the idea of a change of lifestyle before the full church. “People here are not ready to hear that any part of our lifestyle is not sustainable,” he says.
Still, he might—“I’ll follow God’s direction on this. Ask me in six months.”
Read James William Gibson’s writings at jameswilliamgibson.com.