A disconnect between drought woes and climate change impacts.

SWISHER COUNTY, TX — Cotton producer Barry Evans, of Swisher County, Texas, pressed his boot onto the shovel and turned over the soil that’s banking his water.

To Evans, water is money. In an area that received less than five inches of rain last year and 10 inches this year, every drop counts. Evans supplements rainfall through heavy irrigation. To keep both the rainfall and irrigated water on his land and in his well, Evans hasn’t tilled his fields since 1996. Field residue from cotton, sorghum and wheat (a cover crop) grown over the past several years creates an organic mat that protects the soil from wind and shatters rain drops as they fall, gently dispersing the water and allowing it to filter into the aquifer.

West Texan Barry Evans is one of a growing number of producers in the region to adopt no-till farming practices. Photo courtesy of Lisa Palmer.

Scientists and water conservation agencies working with the farmers don’t frame the sustainability issues as climate change impacts, because drought and water resources management are a far more pressing concern.

Evans is one of a growing number of producers in West Texas to adopt no-till farming practices to ensure sustainability of his farm operations, said Steve Verret, executive vice-president of the Plains Cotton Growers. Many in the region are transitioning to dry land agriculture because their aquifers have run dry.

Water in this part of the world is all ground water, and the supply is limited. Here, cotton relies on heavy amounts of irrigation in order to survive more than 90 days of temperatures that soared above 100 degrees last year.

Non-irrigated cotton crop, foreground, and irrigated cotton in the background. Photo courtesy of Lisa Palmer.

Cotton is big business in Texas and is the fourth largest cotton market in the world. Even though scientists expect the Ogallala Aquifer to run dry in 10 to 20 years, Verret said much of the area is planning to raise dry-land crops to adapt.

Farmers won’t give up even if the wells go dry. “We’ll have less of a yield, no doubt,” said Verret, adding that he isn’t convinced of long range projections on warming temperatures and drought from climate change. “They’ve been saying since the 1960s that we’ll run out of water in 10 years, but we haven’t run out of water yet.”

When asked if he IS concerned about the increase in temperature from climate change, Verret said farmers aren’t looking that far out. “We take things that we have more control of and just adapt,” he said. “I don’t know if this is a cycle, or long term climate change, but we’re adjusting to those things and it’s in the back of my mind.”

Research plant physiologist James Mahan, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service, said the future is about sustainability, and climate change doesn’t resonate with many of the producers in the area.

Mahan said, “We are heading toward a brick wall at 80 miles an hour with this water and drought issue. Climate change is a couple of branches hitting the side of the car. It will make it marginally worse or marginally better, but the reality is that our bigger problem is the long term sustainability issue. All agriculture needs is about 120 days between planting a seed and harvesting a crop. If it does get warmer here, we have our ability to shift our production.”

Kim Winton, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma and head of the South Central Climate Science Center, said that farmers are beginning to understand climate change is occurring and are making adaptations, but don’t yet want to discuss the topic. That’s okay, she said, adding, “We meet the farmers where they are in their thinking about weather and climate. We help create a bridge to understanding what climate change is all about.”

— Lisa Palmer

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