One Drop at a Time: Crops suffer through the drought - KSWO 7News | Breaking News, Weather and Sports

One Drop at a Time: Crops suffer through the drought

LAWTON, Okla._The cotton and wheat industry in Southwest Oklahoma has suffered major economic losses as a result of the ongoing drought.

As we continue our month-long series of reports on the water crisis, 'One Drop at a Time', 7News reporter Samantha Jones explains more about the toll it has taken and just how resilient those farmers are.

Tom Buchanan has been growing cotton since the 80s and has been the manager of the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District since 2004. He says they have records that date back to the 40s that indicate the irrigation district has been able to deliver water and produce a crop every year, except for one time in the 1950s. However, due to the drought, they haven't been able to irrigate since 2010.

"We are setting historic records and not the kind that you want to set as a result of this drought. It is as tragic as I've seen," explained Buchanan.

The last time the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District was able to release enough water to produce a successful crop was in 2010.

"There was just a complete failure in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 2014 we did harvest a little bit of a rain fed crop, so to speak, more of a dry land crop, but we still harvested around 300 pounds; should have been making somewhere around 1500-2000 pounds," Buchanan said.

The district's 50,000 acres generate about $275 million in revenue. During 2014, only 30,000 bales were harvested, which brought in only $15 million. So, after complete misses in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and a partial crop in 2014, that's a dramatic loss in revenue.

"We've been burning the equity, we've been living on our savings. It's certainly time to get another good crop to build that bank account back up," said Buchanan.

Producers, Buchanan says, were in pretty good shape equity wise prior to the drought to withstand the downturn, and crop insurance has helped plug the hole.

"Crop insurance does not take the place of good crop, but crop insurance will keep you rolling and try it again next year is about all its good for. Producers are still hanging tough, they're still planting crops and they're still trying to grow a crop," said Buchanan.

Farmers, he says, are no different than the average business owner; they are constantly looking for another crop that would provide the cash they need to pay their bills and feed their families.

“Our winter wheat, for example, is still producing crops, now nowhere near what it ought to, but we are making winter wheat crop,” said Buchanan.

He says winter wheat is the second most lucrative crop for farmers in the irrigation district.

"Using it for grazing in the winter, and then into early march to be able to put some pounds on some stockers. Even in this drought time, irrigated cotton, or the possibility of an irrigated cotton crop, is the best chance of a return on our investment," said Buchanan.

Buchanan says impacts are occurring across the board in agriculture, so the infrastructure that supports the cotton industry is suffering as well.

"Cotton gins, cotton compress where cotton is stored, those facilities are also suffering because if there's not a product to process then there's no need for that facility," said Buchanan.

He says if the cotton gins and warehouses aren't being used, then there's also no need for the employees that run those facilities.

"Many producers are at a skeleton crew now, the irrigation district itself is at a skeleton crew of what it used to be," said Buchanan.

Buchanan says they will go ahead and seed the fields for cotton, but will have to wait and see what Mother Nature will do for the lake.

"The river bed is wet, it's ready to flow water if a rain does come, and this is our rainy part of the year. April, May and June is when we get the significant portions of our inflow,” said Buchanan.

He says if the lake remains low, then 2015 will mark the fifth year they haven't been able to irrigate.

"We'll have another rain fed crop and hope that later in the year we can get adequate in-flow to start irrigating at that time," said Buchanan.

Buchanan predicts a change in the air as this spring, he says, is different than the past.

“We are starting to get some rain storms, it's kind of returning back to that weather pattern when that dry-line would setup and we'd get those thunderstorms and get those good rains. So, maybe this drought is starting to break a little bit. We're a hearty bunch, we're very optimistic and believe that the good year is just around the corner,” said Buchanan.

When we first spoke with Buchanan, the lake was sitting at about 12 percent. After the rainfall we've gotten in the last week and a half, the lake level has doubled. At last check, it was at nearly 25 percent, but the possibility of an irrigated crop this year is still unknown.

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