WILTING AWAY: Area dryland wheat in dire need of moisture

Cattle graze in a field north of Clovis off State Highway 209 Friday morning. (CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By William Thompson: Freedom Newspapers

Lack of significant moisture since mid-October has area wheat farmers desperately hoping for rain. One wheat farmer, Dale Miller, said if it doesn’t rain or snow in the next couple of weeks his crop will fail.

Miller grows wheat and grazes cattle at his farm off state Highway 236, about 13 miles north of Portales. He said his cattle production stands to decline 50 percent if the area doesn’t receive moisture soon.

“If we don’t get rain in the next two weeks the cattle will have to be taken off the crop,” Miller said. “The cattle will then be smaller and not ready for market.”

About 25 percent of Miller’s dry wheat is already gone. If the skies don’t open up soon, Miller said the decreased cattle production would mean he wouldn’t buy new pickups or replacement vehicles. He said it would mean fewer trips to town to shop.

“I’d have to cut back all expenses,” he said.
Joe Whitehead, district conservationist with the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service in Portales, said the dry spell is severely damaging dry cropland wheat in the area.

“A lot of wheat is dead,” Whitehead said. “This time of year in the Dora area there is usually a lot of green wheat. Now, there is no green out there.”

Whitehead said as little as 2 to 3 inches of rainfall over a one-week period would be an answer to many prayers, but the National Weather Service reports average rainfall for February and March in eastern New Mexico averages well under an inch per month.

Whitehead is also concerned about soil erosion. He said the dry soil just blows away in the wind.

“This spring the soil will be prone to wind erosion if we don’t get some rain,” he said, “and a lot of farmers make money by letting cattle graze on winter wheat, but the cattle are not getting much to eat.”

The bottom line is if the dry spell continues, farmers lose money and the local economies of Clovis and Portales are affected, according to Floyd McAlister, New Mexico State University extension agent for Roosevelt County.

“Farmers and ranchers don’t get moisture, so they don’t spend money. They don’t buy new equipment or cars. Businesses in town suffer,” McAlister said. “It affects the economy more than people know.”

For an idea of how much money the wheat harvest generates for area farmers, McAlister offered the following figures:

In 2004, Roosevelt County farmers harvested 83,000 acres of wheat, which sold for $4 million. Curry County farmers produced 118,000 acres of wheat and totaled sales of $7.78 million.

McAlister said the average wheat sales from 2000 through 2004 for Roosevelt County farmers was $2.75 million while Curry County farmers saw average yearly sales of $6.2 million.

James Kratzer, a meteorologist at Cannon Air Force Base, said there is a weather system in place that could cause continued dry weather throughout the winter and spring.

“La Niña is in effect off southwestern California,” Kratzer said. “Waters off southwestern California are cooler than normal. Typically, La Niña means less than average rainfall for our area. La Niña conditions are expected to continue for the next three to six months.”

Tom Dannelly, an insurance agent with Eastern Plains Insurance Agency in Portales, said more than 90 percent of area wheat farmers have crop insurance, but he foresees significant economic impact if the dry weather continues.

“There hasn’t been a (dryland wheat) farmer I’ve talked to who isn’t worried about losing his crop this year,” Dannelly said. “If farmers don’t spend money it ripples down all the way through the economy.”

Clovis Mayor David Lansford said it’s simply a matter of time before the average citizen starts to notice the effects of the dry spell should it continue.

“We’re at the beginning of where it’s going to be more publicly discussed,” Lansford said. “Agriculture creates wealth. Much less wealth is produced (in dry weather) because agriculture is the largest segment of our economy. I would say we need a good snowstorm or rainstorm by mid-March.”

Even in a worst-case scenario, however, Lansford said the potential loss of this year’s wheat crop would not mean an economic catastrophe for the area.

He said wheat farmers who rely on irrigation would help make up for the loss of dryland wheat, but those irrigation farmers would face higher costs due to having to spray more water on their crops.

McAlister said Clovis and Portales experienced a similar weather pattern during the winter of 1999-2000.