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The Gosneys, who are Cimarron Electric Co-op members, have been farming since they graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in 1969; but their history in the area dates back to 1893, when their respective ancestors came down from Kansas and staked claims in the land run. “There wasn’t anything on my family’s centennial farm when they arrived. But within the fi rst two years, they planted 1,000 trees,” Kris says. “They planted fruit trees so they would hopefully be able to get some food for their family, and they planted others for shade and wind protection. These things become more dear to your heart as each year passes. Especially when you think of that.”

She gestures to the children in the backseat. Just five minutes from their house we entered the Gloss Mountains—mesas

and red earth. Fertile isn’t the word that comes to mind.

“It can be beautiful, but this isn’t real good wheat country,” John says, “especially around here. Around Fairview it’s better. This is more pasture-grass cattle country.”

This year, however, things are especially dry. According to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, the Gloss Mountain area received roughly fi ve inches of rain this year, less than half the normal amount. According to the Gosneys’ own measurements, their land has received even less—just a couple inches at the most.

Kris points to a patch of alfalfa that is nearly bare and to a nearby fi eld of wheat that is too short and sparse to wave and roll in the hot wind. The Gos- ney’s expect their own harvest to be roughly a third its usual size, and they aren’t alone.

“The timing of this drought is really unfortunate,” says Gary McManus, associate state climatologist. It’s what we call a wheat killer because it’s persist- ing from the time of planting through maturation. Places like Tillman and Jackson County—Boise City, Tipton, Hollis—they’ve really been without rain since last fall. The Panhandle is seeing active erosion due to wind. Southwest Oklahoma has been plagued by wildfi res.”

One of the demoralizing things about droughts is that they are not standalone weather phenom- ena: they usually go hand in hand with extreme heat, creating a vicious cycle. “Droughts have a tenden- cy to persist because when you start losing soil mois- ture, less moisture is in the atmosphere and thus it is less likely to rain,” McMa- nus says. “Droughts also af- fect the temperature. More of the sun’s energy is avail- able to heat the surface, be- cause it isn’t being used to evaporate soil moisture. As we get farther and farther into the warm months, the impacts tend to speed up and accumulate.”

Droughts are also extremely hard to predict, he says, although the current conditions are the result of an extremely strong La Niña pat- tern, a cooling of the Pacifi c near the equator that tends to shift storms further north, leav- ing Oklahoma dry.

But it is the effect, rather than the cause, of the drought that interests the Gosneys and other farmers. Unlike a fl ood or an ice storm, a drought doesn’t develop over the course of a day or a week. The absence of moisture is a slow build that forces diffi cult decisions: How much hay should I buy? How many cattle should I sell? Is it too dry to plant the cotton? A good, slow rain could always turn things around, abate the crisis. Larry Wright of

Gloss Mountain

the Great Plains Resource, Con- ser vation and De vel opment of- fice says no-till farming methods are one decision farmers can make

to increase their yield in dry conditions. “Following harvest, you don’t till,” he ex- plains. “Instead, you apply an herbicide to knock the weeds down during the summer, then plant with a drill to place the seed in the soil.” No-till fi elds have more ground cover, which can retain at least half an inch of moisture, Wright says. That might not seem like much, but in an area that’s only received two to three inches of rainfall total during a growing season, it can make a difference.

Cimarron Electric Co-op members John and Kris Gosney own a family farm in western Oklahoma, near Fairview. The Gosneys expect their harvest this year to be just a third of its usual size due extreme dry conditions.

On the other hand, the Gosneys believe that or gan- ic farming has been a good economic bet for them because while their yields might be lower, so is the cost of their inputs.

According to Mike Schulte at the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, research and new technology will pre- vent farmers from suffering the scale of crop loss that occurred in the 1930s, but there aren’t any methods that can make up for the lack of moisture entirely. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that

74.8 million bushels of wheat will be harvested this year, which is down from 120.9 million last year. But the cost of a drought goes far beyond wheat. The Gosneys are driving 100 miles every other day just to check on all their cattle and make sure they have water. If there is rain, they might only make their rounds once a week or every ten days. And the prover- bial greener pastures become an economic reality in dry conditions as cattle break fences trying to fi nd a nice patch of grass on the other side.

“It isn’t just the farmers losing money, it’s the rural communities where those farmers spend money and the state revenue,” McManus says. “It can impact the state’s tourism, too, and it can impact your normal citizen’s pocketbook if it affects their health. The elderly and the very young are susceptible to the heat waves we can have during droughts.”

Despite the impact of the

drought, however, McManus is also quick to point out that the severity of the situation has been somewhat exaggerated and that rainfall statistics are often mis- understood. This is not the Dust Bowl.

“We have to be very careful,”

he says. “This drought is nothing compared to the 1930s. Those were decade-long droughts. The December through March time period this year is the driest peri- od on record for southwest Okla- Continued on page 36

JULY 2011 21

Photos by Chelsey Simpson

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