Texas farmers pray for disaster Drought: In the parched Rio Grande Valley, a hurricane with a deluge of rain would be welcome.

Sun Journal

September 02, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas -- Farmers who till the rich soils of this broad river delta along the Mexican border are quietly praying for a disaster -- a powerful hurricane packing a dozen inches of rain.

Such a storm -- similar to Tropical Storm Charley, which flooded parts of Texas about 350 miles from here last week -- would likely cause severe flooding and property damage.

But, they insist, that may be the only escape from the disaster they're battling now.

Despite a scattering of showers across the valley, drought this summer is steadily destroying one of the nation's most fertile farming regions here in deep south Texas, near Brownsville.

Once green with an abundance of fat Ruby Red grapefruit, oranges, sugar cane, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, cotton and aloe vera, the fields that crowd the valley have decayed into pale squares of dust and stubble.

These landscapes are common across Texas this summer, as farmers and ranchers watch their profits burn up in 100-plus-degree temperatures under thin, wispy clouds that deliver no rain.

In the suburbs and the cities, the weather has also been severe. It has buckled foundations, scorched lawns and left many communities under severe water restrictions.

In the dust that cakes on cars -- which their owners are discouraged from washing -- many drivers have etched a plaintive request: "Pray for rain."

Texas this summer is bursting with stories of drought-related tragedies, but all suffering is measured against the Rio Grande Valley, which has endured so much disappointing weather for so long.

Initial estimates put total losses at nearly $300 million, including $100 million in crops and 14,000 farm-related jobs.

"It's the most hard-hit area in Texas," says Rick Perry, Texas' agriculture commissioner, who has spent the past 90 days assessing damage across the state.

"This area is now in its fifth year of water-related crop losses."

The region is bracing for a sixth. Two reservoirs on the Rio Grande River that provide irrigation water have been at all-time lows, leaving farmers unsure whether water will be available for fall crops.

Foundering in debt, many farmers cannot afford to spin the wheel again and risk failure.

Tropical Storm Charley offered some relief, raising water levels slightly in the Rio Grande's Falcon and Amistad reservoirs.

But dry-land crops failed to receive a significant amount of moisture. A powerful storm -- or several weeks of steady rain -- is needed to replenish reservoirs and hope, farmers say.

"My mother didn't raise a fool. I'm not going to plant anything without rain," says Jerry Florence. He pushes his steel-tip boots into his parched cornfield about 50 miles north of Brownsville, revealing soil hard as concrete.

His grandfather moved to the valley in 1931, drawn by the promise of fertile alluvial soils and a year-round growing season.

For his grandfather and father, the valley delivered. But for Florence, the land has offered hard lessons in humility and perseverance.

When Florence took over the farm in the early 1970s, the family raised crops on more than 5,000 acres. Water for irrigation was cheap and plentiful, allowing him to grow bumper crops of vegetables, cotton and sugar cane. At his farm's peak, Florence owned four tractors and employed 40 people.

A series of droughts, freezes, flooding and other agricultural nightmares slowly eroded his farming empire.

Water shortages this year caused irrigation costs to jump from $20 per acre to $60 per acre, depleting his savings and forcing him to watch many of his crops wither in the field.

Florence struggles to farm 2,000 acres, with two jury-rigged John Deeres. About the only thing guaranteed to grow are his debts -- now close to $500,000, he says.

Each Friday, he wonders whether he will have enough money to pay his remaining four employees. His wife returned to work as a school teacher last month to help make ends meet.

At night, Florence, a tall, wiry man of 50, sleeps in a trailer beside his thirsty crops, a loaded rifle beside his bed to defend his farm equipment from a rash of thefts in the valley.

This stretch of hard times has caused Florence to reflect on the path he chose. He holds a graduate degree in microbiology and is a few credits short of an MBA. Other careers might have allowed him to travel more and depend less on the whims of the weather.

Then, as if his mind had been allowed to run too far from home, Florence quickly catches himself and recalls what has kept him here: days spent plowing cotton fields with his son asleep by his side, sugar cane crops so tall they toppled under their own weight, nights working beneath a deep valley sky sprinkled with stars.

"I've only realized lately that I love it," he says.

Across the valley, farmers on the brink of bankruptcy are doing the math and asking themselves whether it is time to bow out or risk more debt.

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