BLACKWELL — There is more than just a little irony in the name of the gravel Kay County road bordering the south side of Harold Wooderson's farmhouse and the 264-acre alleged wheat field to the west of it.
The east-west stretch is named Dry Road.
There have been years Norman's Flood Street would have been appropriate around Wooderson's area.
But certainly not now.
Wooderson, 72, said that, although his family has not always owned this field, he's lived next to it throughout his life. The field has often been planted to wheat and Wooderson has never seen it look so pitiful because of drought.
In a good year, the new wheat would be about boot top high in November when the Woodersons put cattle on it to graze through the winter.
By now, after a few months of grazing, it would be down to about 3 to 4 inches tall but still look like a nice green blanket of wheat.
However, instead of covering the field, there are 2-inch tall tufts of wheat spread out like islands along the planted rows. The sandy loam soil, which in places bears hoof prints from the cattle, is much more visible than the intended crop.
Past and future
The Wooderson family farm operation is one of history and future. Five generations deep, three of those are currently active in the farming and ranching of this land in north-central Oklahoma. That land is among the 38.86 percent of Oklahoma suffering exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday. Exceptional is the worst of the drought categories.
That's not exactly news to Harold and wife Mary Ellen's sons Max, 52, and Bruce, 49.
Harold Wooderson knows the average annual rainfall in that area is supposed to be about 36 inches. That would be a lot more than some portions of Oklahoma receive and yet not as much as others. But it's the average for his area, he said. His standard grin fades when he notes that in 2010 they received 23 inches of rainfall, followed by 28 inches in 2011 and 23.6 inches this past year. And by the way, of that 2012 total, 8½ inches came in a three-day span in late April, he said.
Bruce Wooderson said that at that point, the ponds were full and it looked like the drought had been turned to mud. Not so.
By summer's end, most of those ponds were dry.
Because of the drought, they have cattle on a tenth of the properties they would normally graze them on in the winter. That is partially because of a lack of water and partially because of little wheat pasture. So, about 15 percent of their cattle is on their wheat pastures this winter. The remainder of their herd is in other people's feedlots or on other people's wheat, where the situation is better.
Max Wooderson asked his father about the field along Dry Road, “Has it ever on Jan. 15, looked like it does now?”
“No,” Harold Wooderson replied. “I don't think I've ever even seen a year that you could see dirt out there the 15th of January. It's always covered with wheat. Now you have to look dang hard to see any wheat.”
This family usually starts planting wheat about Sept. 6. It was real dry at that time this past year, but then they received about an inch of rain. So the Woodersons started planting Sept. 17. The moisture was sufficient enough for about 80 percent of the crop to come up, then after an additional three-tenths of an inch rain the rest came up.
“There was the moisture three inches deep and nothing below it,” Harold Wooderson said. “The wheat came up and looked pretty good, but there was no reserve there at all.
“As soon as it used up the three inches of moisture that we had on top, it basically just started shriveling back up. The leaves just got dry and some of them blew away. The wheat, you might say, disappeared.”
But to say they had hope for this wheat crop would be incorrect. Because they still do. They still think they'll be harvesting the crop for grain in probably early- to mid-June. Now while it might not come close to the average for this field, 46 bushels an acre, the price for wheat might be enough to make what they do cut worth it, Max Wooderson said. Even if things don't change in terms of moisture, they'll take the cattle off the wheat by the middle of February, Bruce Wooderson said.
“We're optimistic,” their father said. “Wheat's a dry-weather crop. We still have the stand. Although it's shriveled back down to almost nothing, the plant's still alive.”
Making the best of it
The situation is tough for ag producers in many areas of Oklahoma, and their circumstances vary.
Harold Wooderson is just an example.
This week he said, “I honestly don't remember, even as a kid, seeing this little creek up north here, named Dry Creek, bone dry, but it was last year and it's been bone dry since summer.
“I've got a brother that is eight years older than me and he was just starting to farm during the really dry years in the '50s,” he said. “I heard someone ask him last year if it was as dry as it was back then. He said, and again this was last year, “It's drier than it was in the '50s, but that one lasted three years.” Well, this one is kind of going into its third year now. We didn't realize it here at our place in 2010, because we lived on subsoil moisture.”
Harold Wooderson has been farming since 1959. This isn't the first time weather has kicked him in the shins.
This area of the state usually gets precipitation. So while drought has probably damaged only a about a half-dozen of his crops, too much rain has likely hindered about 10 other crops, he said.
There's no shortage of factors that can come into play.
It's been 15 years since The Oklahoman's four-part series on Harold Wooderson and the 264-acre field west of his house. The purpose was to provide an example of what goes into a wheat crop from the time of planting to the grain bin. From the start, some of that wheat had to be replanted. Then it encountered freeze damage in patches. And then on the day the combines pulled into the field, it started hailing. One disc-shaped hailstone was measured at 2 inches. But within five minutes the storm had passed. Despite the challenges, that crop yielded 46 bushels an acre, and Harold Wooderson was happy.
As for the drought and the pitiful look of that field and other wheat fields in 2012, he falls back on the words of his father, Lawrence Wooderson, who said, “Don't worry about the things you can't change.”
“I don't worry as much as some,” Harold Wooderson said. “I am concerned, but I cannot change the drought.
“We're farming for a crop. I'm just trying to make the best of what we've got.”