Winston Millican, the fifth-generation owner of Millican Pecan farm, knows hundreds of his 10,000 pecan trees individually, from the size of their last crop to the health of particular branches—a feat of memorization decades in the making. Located just outside San Saba, a close-knit farming community northwest of Austin, the one-thousand-acre farm consists mostly of dense pecan orchards nestled alongside a winding stretch of the olive-green San Saba River. In many places, this idyllic agricultural landscape looks much the way it did before the arrival of European settlers 170 years ago.
In the 1880s, Millican’s great-great-grandfather helped to establish San Saba as the “Pecan Capital of the World.” The family’s pecan nursery was established around the same time and would eventually become Millican Pecan. Today the company has 25 employees and sells pecan products from its headquarters, just outside downtown.
But two years into an “exceptional” drought—and after nearly eighty days of scorching triple-digit temperatures—Millican, like many pecan farmers across Central Texas, expects many of his trees to die this year. He anticipates losing as much as 10 percent of his orchard, nearly a thousand of the farm’s pecan trees. Many of those that do survive will produce a significantly smaller crop, both in number and physical size.
Across the county, a similarly devastating scene is unfolding in backyards and orchards that are home to tens of thousands of pecan trees, some of them more than a century old and long celebrated for their adaptability. Canopies that are typically dense and green in the weeks before the fall harvest season begins are now brown and balding, revealing brittle branches and leaves in retreat—a sign of extreme stress known as “dieback.” Dried-out trunks are surrounded by piles of sun-scorched leaves. The lucky trees have a few branches with shrunken, semi-green leaves. The unlucky trees have been dead for weeks, killed off by an unrelenting heat dome that has made the soil feel like concrete and transformed green, golf ball–size pecans into brown pellets the size of almonds.
Like so many Texas farmers coping with this year’s apocalyptic weather, Millican struggles to separate his self-worth from the land into which he invests so much of his time and emotional energy each year. “It’s a responsibility I have to take care of these trees, to leave them for the next generation, and I’m doing the best that I can with what I have,” Millican said during a recent tour of the farm. He pointed out seventy-foot-tall pecan trees that he said were healthy earlier this year but are now withering, browning, and breaking apart under a blazing September sun. “You feel like a failure when it’s not going the way you expected it to.”
Over the last few weeks, the second-hottest summer in Texas history has begun to soften, bringing some relief to drought-stricken farms around the state. But the end of this year’s extreme heat brings with it another kind of torment, as farmers across the state take stock of what’s been lost and contemplate the future as the climate warms and the state’s water resources dwindle. In West Texas, scientists say warming temperatures are already threatening cotton, grape, and corn production. A recent report found that the Ogallala Aquifer has declined over the past five years, threatening High Plains agriculture. Hundreds of miles southeast, in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most productive agricultural hubs in the United States, the Rio Grande is gradually drying up thanks to climate change and overuse, threatening a variety of crops, perhaps most notably corn, one of the region’s major exports. Across the state, drought has killed enough grass to cause a severe hay shortage, forcing farmers to spend more money on feed and other producers to cull “large portions” of their herds, one expert recently told the Austin American-Statesman.
Even small-scale operations like Hope Farms, an organic urban farm located a few miles from downtown Houston, have struggled to keep existing crops alive and to anticipate what will survive in the future as growing seasons become more chaotic. Noah Rattler, the farm’s manager, is used to challenging conditions: he once walked to California on foot to raise awareness about homelessness. But nothing, he said, has prepared him for the stress of trying to devise a planting and harvesting schedule in a climate with an extended summer marked by unrelenting heat waves and drought as well as a shortened winter marked by erratic bursts of extreme cold. The old rules and predictable patterns for farming no longer apply, he said, but the new ones are nearly impossible to discern. “Farming is almost like riding a unicycle, juggling, and having to spin plates at the same time, and if all of it isn’t happening simultaneously, it doesn’t work,” Rattler said. “Throw climate change into the mix and now it’s like you’ve got marbles on the floor.”
But pecans are the state tree for a reason. The nut occupies “an important place in Texas culture,” said Monte Nesbitt, a statewide fruit specialist at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension. “These trees have been utilized as shade during the hottest parts of the summer as well as used for supplemental income in many rural communities.” Designated the official state tree in 1919, the pecan tree is native to Texas, growing along riverbanks and streams across the state. For thousands of years, pecan trees have thrived in Texas’s climate, with its unique combination of blazing-hot summers that dry out the land followed by mild, wet winters that revitalize vegetation and replenish aquifers. The protein-rich nuts have been a reliable food source for as long as humans have called the region home and are credited with helping Cabeza de Vaca survive his early travels across Texas in the 1530s. Today pecans are a $70 million industry in Texas, which is second only to Georgia in annual pecan production.
A single growing season marked by drought and scorching temperatures wasn’t always enough to kill healthy pecan trees, which can live for up to three hundred years. That’s partly because mature trees have extensive root systems that can, in the right circumstances, draw moisture from distant soil or locate alternative sources of subsurface water. But 2011, Texas’s hottest year on record, rewrote the agriculture industry’s understanding of pecan trees and their vulnerability to a changing climate. That year conditions were so hot that even native, healthy trees were killed off in a matter of months. If conditions in areas like San Saba don’t improve, Nesbitt said, he expects to see extensive tree death again in 2023, though it’s too early to know how many trees have died in recent months.
Blair Krebs, executive director of the Texas Pecan Growers Association, said Central Texas, and San Saba in particular, is among the hardest-hit regions in the state. “A living thing can only survive under pressure for so long,” she said.
And after a decade of nonstop population growth, water is becoming increasingly scarce in many parts of the state. During the growing season, mature pecan trees can require as much as two thousand gallons of water each week. To keep trees healthy, most Texas pecan growers rely on a combination of rainfall and drip irrigation, which often leaves their orchards vulnerable to drought, especially as utility companies and municipalities implement restrictions on water use. With more people and subdivisions spreading into the Hill Country, Nesbitt said, “there’s concern among farmers that the water table will be affected and pecans will be a precarious crop in the future.”
The fear isn’t simply about drought and diminishing groundwater resources. Farmers like Millican are beginning to realize that no amount of water is enough to save trees when the temperature shoots past 100 degrees and stays that way for several months at a time, packing the heat of two or three summers into a single season. Driving along the back roads around his orchard, he pointed to mature pecan trees growing on the banks of the San Saba River that were dying despite their close proximity to water. “The heat,” he said, “it’s just too much.”
Millican is confident he’s lost money this year, but he says he’s in it for the long haul. “I can withstand a year or two of these weather conditions, but if this continues a few more years that’s a different proposition,” he said. “I can’t help but wonder what happens if we’re just at the start of this thing?”
Surveying the land, Millican told me this is normally one of his favorite times a year. In years past, as the summer heat has given way to cooler, shorter days, millions of swollen green pecans have begun appearing on branches across the county, ushering in several months of harvests that have, for more than a century, brought multiple generations of his family into the orchards together to celebrate an investment in the land that has come to life. This year, there’s not much to celebrate.