FREDERICK, Okla. (AP) — 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.’’Continued...