U.S. Water News Online
PORTALES, N.M. -- Dryland farmers in the high plains of New Mexico, like their counterparts in Texas, Oklahoma, and parts of Kansas, will not harvest crops this year.
"Most farmers here will consider themselves lucky if they can get a combine through their fields to collect seeds for next year's planting," said Roosevelt County extension agent Floyd McAllister. "The worst part is," he added, "unless we get more than normal rain soon, there may be no planting, either."
The soil is dry down to a level of at least 10 feet deep, McAllister said. "I've lived here all my life," said McAllister, "and I've never seen every segment of agriculture hurting so bad."
Not only is he talking about lost wheat, cotton, and milo crops, but of ranchers struggling with no grazing land and high feed prices, and dairy farmers who cannot sell milk at prices high enough to offset the high cost of feed.
This is the region's severest drought in recent memory, said McAllister, the worst of any on record. "And our records," he pointed out, "go back to 1905."
Less than an inch of rain fell here on October 2, 1995, and for the next 240 days -- approximately 8 months -- the area received only 0.42 inches of moisture. Since then, a few thunderstorms have moistened the ground, but the moisture deficit is so great, said McAllister, that few are optimistic about the planting season for winter wheat which is not far away.
Meanwhile, farmers in the Rio Grande Conservancy District, who rely mainly on a ditch system which supplies run-off water for irrigation, may be facing strict metering as soon as July or August.
"That would probably limit their water supplies to about 40 percent of what they had last year," said extension agent Bob Pate. "This would hit the fruit and vegetable growers hard," he said. "There's no telling what the impact will be."
Small farms here are selling out in record numbers, Pate said. "People are packing up and leaving the gate open when they go," he said. "There's nothing left to take." And those who have not given up, are just barely hanging on.
The financial loss of farmers has already had a ripple effect on other businesses. While farmers are not harvesting crops, they are also not spending much money, and many businesses depend on the circulation of that agricultural money.
But the biggest challenge of all is the debt crisis brought about by the severity of this drought -- its intensity and the prospects of its continuing into the next planting season.
On the whole, farms on New Mexico's high plains are not owned by big agribusiness outfits. They are generally family farms, and they are almost all mortgaged.
Nowhere can you see more clearly the complexity of the farming business, said McAllister, than right here in Roosevelt County. "Weather, for farmers, is always a gamble," he said. "But market forces can be just as unpredictable, and government policy changes with the political winds. And," he added, "return margins for farmers and ranchers are generally low."
"Few businesses lay it all on the line," said McAllister, but the farmer does this every year."
In times of drought, the risk is magnified. Every decision can be a gamble -- when to plow under the crop to keep dry soil from blowing away, even whether or not to plough and plant at all. These decisions rightly, or wrongly, made can make or break a small family farm, said McAllister.
When to get out? That is the question in years of drought. Lou Sultemeier is one farmer here who believes he knows exactly when to get out. It was two years ago. Trouble is, he said, he didn't know it then.
"When we started out," said Sultemeier's wife Linda, "it was to have something for our kids. The way it is now, the only thing we'll leave them is a debt."
A government insurance program for farmers has helped keep many of the farmers here from going out of business, said Harold Terry, who directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency in Roosevelt County.
The program, which is offered at a $50 annual fee per crop -- no matter how many acres a farmer plants -- covers 50 percent of a farmer's losses at 60 percent of last year's crop price. Terry stressed that the 50 percent coverage relates to each farm's production history for the last 4 to 10 years, rather than being based on an average yield for the whole industry.
For the 1995 planting season, some form of crop insurance was required by the federal government, said Terry, in order for farmers to participate in any U.S.D.A. programs, such as direct or guaranteed loans, commodity loans, or deficiency payments.
"That was the last year of the 1990 farm bill," said Terry. "Starting in 1996, new legislation does not require it, though the program is still available."
But starting in 1997, he said, even this limited government "safety net," put in place in lieu of ad hoc disaster relief programs of the last 40 years, will be phased out, leaving farmers with little but private insurance to fall back on for crop failure protection.
"The government seems to be moving away from disaster programs," said Terry. "In the past, these programs paid farmers at least some portion of their losses regardless of their insurance coverage."
In 1996, Terry said, the government has been signing farms into the new 7-year farm program. This program requires farmers to carry some type of crop insurance -- either government sponsored or private. If a farmer doesn't have insurance, Terry explained, he must sign a waiver stating he understands he is not eligible for any crop loss programs the government might offer.
"This has caused some confusion," said Terry, "because these farmers have been told there will be no more government sponsored crop loss programs. With the phase-out of our interim USDA catastrophic coverage, all these farmers have left is private insurance, and that can be expensive."
Some of these farmers, Terry added, "figure they're better off gambling on their own."
Return to the U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water News Homepage