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In Panhandle, the best crops are Dust Bowl memories
Producers pray for rain, ask for help

By John David Sutter Published: June 22, 2008
BOISE CITY — Memories of the Dust Bowl hit Millard Fowler, 95, when he sees the wind whipping up small dust storms near his wheat fields in Cimarron County.

"It just looks like the old dirty '30s every time I go by there,” he said.

He remembers years when the trees just across the street were choked up to their necks in powdery dust, and when he would wake up in the morning to find his silhouette traced in dirt on his pillow.

"It's different, but I think it's drier right now than it was in 1934 and five, when it was so bad,” he said, adding: "There's a lot of dirt blowing around here now when the wind blows.”

While heavy rains are flooding crops across the Midwest and most of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Panhandle has been hit with one of the worst droughts in its history.

It's drier now than it was in the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, and to date it's the second driest year on record for the Panhandle. Boise City has only received 1.35 inches of rain this year, its lowest year-to-date total on record. On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded the situation to its most severe drought rating: "exceptional.”

Crops are failing. Cattle are starving. The winds are howling.

Comparisons to the Dust Bowl are everywhere — but not because anyone expects the monster dust storms of the '30s. Farming practices have changed to prevent that, conservation officials say.

The record-setting drought has put the tenacious workers here in a sad and familiar situation: They might be forced to liquidate their farms and to abandon their homeland.

The rain will make the decision. All they can do is pray and wait.

Read the stories of three farmers on Page 16A

Charles Tapp, 65
Some of Charles Tapp's wheat looks better than it should in a drought this bad. Marigold grain seems to reach out for the blue horizon.

Take a closer look, though, and the extent of the drought's damage is evident.

Wheat plants that should sprout in bundles of five to 10 stand alone like hair plugs on a dusty scalp. Inside the heads of the grain, the wheat berries are shriveled up and dried out. The fewer the berries, the less a farmer makes.

Meteorologist J.J. Brost of the National Weather Service in Amarillo, said parts of the Panhandle got an inch of rain last week. The showers were "feast or famine,” he said, adding that Boise City got next to nothing.

For a drought this severe, recent rain "is just kind of a drop in the bucket,” he said. It could take years to break the cycle.

Soil tests show no moisture 4 inches down into the ground, said Cherrie Brown, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Cole Twombly, a Panhandle farmer, said he attended his uncle's burial recently and noticed the ground was powder dry 6 feet under.

Perhaps the biggest victory in the fight against the dust storms is the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers like Tapp to take some land out of production. They get paid not to farm it, and prairie grasses keep the soil anchored to the ground, unlike in the Dust Bowl days when this entire county was raked in vain again and again by plows.

Tapp figures he'll harvest 10 to 15 percent of the wheat he normally would, which is like working for a year and not getting paid, he said. Luckily, he said, his wife is an accountant, or he'd have to give up his farm.

Still, downplaying his plight, Tapp says Cimarron County is not as bad off as the deluged Midwest.

"I thank my lucky stars my house hasn't washed up some river,” he said. "Here, we can at least sweep the dust out of the house or shovel the dust off the front porch if we have to.”

Millard Fowler, 95
Millard Fowler married his wife, Esther, in 1934 — it was a Dust Bowl wedding.

Fowler said he grabbed a barber from across the street to serve as a witness and married his raven-haired city girl in his father's house.

A happy moment in desperate times.

When Fowler went to ask Esther's father for his daughter's hand in marriage, he found the man in his garage with a gun aimed at his head. Slideshow: Panhandle drought

Continue reading this story on the...

By John David Sutter, THE OKLAHOMAN


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