DROUGHT IS NO LAUGHING MATTER, BUT RANCHERS AND FARMERS have traditionally fallen back on a sense of humor to help them through hard times, when the choice is either to laugh or to cry. In the “big dry” of the fifties, a time when it seemed that it would never rain again, farmers told of a milo crop so short that one had to apply lather in order to cut it. Today, with pastures running short on grass and feed prices at unaffordable levels, stockmen say that the drought has created a new job: tail gunner on a feed truck.

Though the current drought is still young compared with the one in the fifties, it has already had severe economic consequences in rural Texas. It has lowered lake and river levels, all but ruined a spring wheat crop, and forced a sell-off of huge numbers of cattle on the poorest market in more than a decade. Texas suffered a rash of land-scorching wildfires in late winter and early spring as dried-up grass seemed only to be waiting for a spark. More can be expected until rain falls or the old vegetation is completely gone, grazed off or blown away by withering hot, dusty winds.

When does a dry spell become a drought? In West Texas it has to linger two or three years before most natives will concede that it has become a full-fledged drought. In East Texas, where the ground cracks open when rains fail to come in a timely manner, a year of low rainfall may be called a drought.

Drought is like a hungry roaming wolf, returning periodically to old haunts to kill again. The great drought of the 1880’s lives only in tradition and folklore, and that of 1918 is rapidly fading from memory. Now the yardsticks are the droughts of the thirties and the fifties. My personal image of the thirties is a memory of my father checking a pasture after a passing shower, cutting a triangular piece of soil as he would plug a watermelon to see how deeply the moisture had penetrated. I remember his disappointment when only a quarter-inch of mud clung to his knife blade. The combination of financial hardship and dry weather left an invisible scar. The rest of his life, my father always expected the next depression and the next drought to start today, or tomorrow at the latest.

Unquestionably the most prolonged drought of our own time came in the fifties. It is usually described as having been seven years long, though it lasted ten years in some areas along and west of the Pecos River and less than seven in parts of East and southeast Texas. I was an agricultural reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times then, and the drought was my running story for seven years. I watched the people I was writing about—many of them good friends, some of them members of my family—struggling to endure that seemingly interminable calamity a day at a time, a month at a time, a year at a time.

The current drought has many of the same earmarks. By early May of this year, Amarillo had been without significant rainfall longer than in any single period during the fifties. Panhandle dryland fields had a mere shadow of a wheat crop, its probable yield the poorest of four consecutive substandard harvests. Between January 1 and April 28, shortfalls from normal rainfall ranged from 9 percent in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley to 31 percent on the lower rolling plains, 33 percent in East Texas, and 50 percent in North Central Texas. Though the statewide total for 1995 was only a little below average, most of last year’s rainfall came in the first six months, leaving the last half of the year relatively dry.

Texas is not alone. Drought conditions are equally bad across New Mexico and in much of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. Ironically, even as Texas farmers are unable to plant spring crops because of dry soil, many in the Corn Belt cannot plant because of excessive rainfall. Drought and flood seem to be cousins, born to a malevolent family line.

This is happening at a time when prices for ever-scarcer wheat and corn supplies keep setting new records. Corn on the South Plains was as high as $9.78 per one hundred pounds (or cwt) in mid-May and reaching for $10, a farmer’s dream. Of course this booming market means nothing to a farmer who has none to sell, and most in Texas do not. Their last crops passed into the hands of dealers months ago, at much lower prices.

If the farmer owns livestock, the escalating grain prices are driving down the return he can expect for his cattle. As feedlots pay more and more for grain and find it costing 90 cents to $1 to put a pound of gain on a steer, they make up the difference the only way they can: by paying less for replacement feeders. Lack of grass forces the rancher to purchase more supplemental feed than he normally would. His costs rise a little each time he buys a load of grain cubes or hay, yet the demand for feed forces down the price he can get for his calves. He is like an innocent bystander caught in a crossfire between rising costs and falling income.

Calf prices range widely, depending upon quality and weight, but a five-hundred-pound feeder at 50 cents a pound would bring $250. A new ranch pickup, practical but not overly fancy, is likely to cost $15,000 to $20,000, ten times more than forty years ago. That means he would have to sell sixty to eighty calves to pay for it. During the fifties drought, twelve to fifteen calves would have bought a pickup comparable for its time.

A story is being told, possibly apocryphal but plausible enough, about a South Texas dairyman who hauled five small Holstein bull calves to a nearby auction. Bull calves are a nuisance in the dairy industry but in good times can be sold to farmers who grow them out. The auction operators told the dairyman that they had no buyers for his calves; he would have to take them back. When he returned to his trailer, he found someone had put seven more bull calves in it.

In times of drought, cattle owners sell older cows first in an effort to trim herds. If dry conditions persist, they cut deeper into the younger end of the herd. A sign of current hard times is that many breeding animals—the stockmen’s factory—are being marketed, conserving the land but jeopardizing the owners’ financial future.

In the San Angelo auctions, some ranchers fortunate enough to have green grass—and there are some, scattered here and there according to the vagaries of rainfall—have taken advantage of low prices to buy younger cows and their calves as pairs to take home, sometimes replacing older cows to “young up” their herds. If the ranchers get rain, they win their bet. If drought retakes their pastures, they lose their gamble, for in all likelihood they will sell out for less than they paid and may have to swallow a feed bill as well.

Up to a point, sheep usually endure dry weather better than cattle, and so far sheep prices have not suffered. Lambs have sold at or near record prices because of scarcity, and slaughter demand from Mexico has maintained good prices on older ewes. Though feed costs are high, fed lambs at $85 to $90 cwt pay out better than fed steers at $60 or $62. For a time in late April, fed steers dropped as low as $55, and feedlots suffered losses of $100 to $150 per head. Feedlot operators say they need $63 to $64 cwt just to break even.

Whether higher costs of production on farms and ranches will eventually translate to higher consumer prices remains to be seen. In theory they should, but in real life the cost of production has little to do with the wholesale price paid to the producer or with the supermarket price of agricultural commodities, except in the long term, when it influences farmers and ranchers either to produce more or to cut back.

Urban dwellers sometimes feel insulated from dry weather’s effects, but this is an illusion. Economic hardship in rural flyover areas and towns insinuates itself into the cities that depend upon those regions for trade. Bank deposits fall off, business declines, and rural customers curtail visits to Dallas and Houston, Fort Worth and Austin. A number of Texas cities, among them San Antonio and Corpus Christi, have restricted water usage as the shortage of rain pinches municipal supplies. Urbanites who muster no sympathy for the farmer’s crop failure may share a bit of his pain when they mourn the demise of flower beds and green lawns. Water usage increases in the summer, at the very time when supply is usually tightest, and especially so during a drought. It is like spending down a bank account when nothing is coming in.

Many of the state’s lakes have already sunk far below capacity. For instance, the Sam Rayburn Reservoir on the Angelina River is rated at 114,500 acres. In mid-May it was down to 80,000 and falling. Many of its boat ramps were closed, the water having receded far beyond them. For the first time in 31 years, Lake Tawakoni on the Sabine River failed to fill during the winter and spring.

The recharge rate for the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies water to about 1.5 million Central Texans, has been down 20 percent in the past year, while usage has been up 15 percent. Drought always focuses more public attention on Texas’ growing water problem and the shortages that appear inevitable in the not-too-distant future, but the plans made in dry times tend to be laid aside when the rains come.

Though some assume the word “drought” to signify a total absence of rain, that is not necessarily so. Even the driest parts of Texas during the fifties received at least a little rain periodically, but never enough for sustained vegetative growth. Farmers would make a crop of sorts, but usually it was far below normal. Rains tend to be spotty during a drought. Once in the fifties I drove through a hard shower, then came out of it so suddenly I had to stop and look back. The line between wet pavement and dry was almost as straight as if it had been drawn using a ruler. I backed my car into the curtain of rain, took out my camera, walked back out into the dry, and took the picture. We used it in the newspaper the next day. A friend in Uvalde told me once that he was having a barbecue for guests in the back yard when it began to rain. They moved to the front yard, where it was dry, and went on with the entertainment.

In drought times it is common for spotty rains to perk up one area temporarily while others remain parched and burned. This May a motorist driving between San Angelo and Fort Worth could see lush green color along the roadside and might wonder what all the talk of drought was about. April and early-May showers had revived grass and weeds, but the soil moisture was shallow. Late-May storms were widely scattered and brought hail damage that negated much of their benefit. Without timely follow-up rains, such temporary relief could be expected to disappear like a summer mirage under a baking sun, leaving shriveled weeds and scorched grass that crunch underfoot like shredded wheat.

For Texans, recurring drought will always be a fact of life. Dry years outnumber the wet ones, especially beyond the ninety-eighth meridian, roughly everything west of Interstate 35. Dryness is the norm; those eagerly anticipated periods of adequate rainfall are the exception. My forebears came to West Texas some 120 years ago, and every generation has struggled in its own way for survival against the dry times.

Many valiant efforts have been made over the years to thwart drought, but most have had limited success if they have not failed altogether. Farmers have seen irrigation as their “drought insurance,” but persistent hot, dry winds can cripple a crop no matter how much water is pumped onto it. Dryland farmers have approached the drought problem by seeking crop varieties that mature with a minimum of moisture. Ranchers have tried various “miracle” grasses, hoping these grasses will outperform native vegetation, but by and large, these efforts have fallen short. Nature’s own selection process has already chosen plants best suited to each area’s soil type and weather pattern.

Government programs are a mixed blessing. Farmers Home Administration loans helped many farmers and ranchers survive the fifties drought after their normal lines of credit had been exhausted. On the other hand, feed-assistance programs were often counterproductive because they had an inflationary effect that outstripped the discounts they offered.

Droughts have also inspired rainmaking efforts, from cereal magnate C. W. Post’s first attempts at dynamiting rainfall from the clouds in 1911 to today’s more scientifically based treatment with silver iodide. This May, cloud seeding was being considered in the Lubbock and San Angelo areas. Also that month, the Amarillo National Bank made its own effort to influence the weather. It began offering a Rainmaker CD, paying 4.75 percent initially and promising to push the rate up as high as 6.75 percent in the event of substantial rain.

It would be nice to see those CDs pay off big.