MARTHA — The cottonwood just up from the southeast corner of the pond used to provide shade for cattle and kids.
The Angus cattle belonged to land owner Jack Givens.
Four of the children were those of Matt and Kellie Muller, of Martha, who leased the land so they could pump water to irrigate their cotton.
The cows grazed as the Muller children and a few friends fished awhile before putting their rods away and jumping in to swim. When full, this pond, nine miles northwest of Altus, tapered off to a depth of about 15 feet.
The cottonwood, that either the cattle or the children could seek shade beneath, is dead.
Givens sold all his cattle more than two years ago because of the drought.
The pond is a sand pit.
From Oct. 1, 2010, through midday Friday, the Oklahoma Mesonet weather network station at Altus had recorded only 42.72 inches of rain. Normal for that time period is 83.95 inches. Rainfall is 41.23 inches below normal for that stretch.
The pond on the land Muller leases had received water for irrigation from the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District. But that water stopped coming more than two years ago. Water is not released from there for irrigation.
So, instead of catfish near the bottom, a parade of red ants filter in and out of a good-sized ant den at a spot that normally could be about 10 feet underwater.
Amid all this, Muller, a 42-year-old mostly gray-haired farmer, is thankful for the faith that set into his life long before the drought did.
“If I solely viewed my self-worth on my career, I would be quite depressed, because my career is not very good,” Muller said. “But I know as a child of God that I have more to live for than just growing crops. I still have a responsibility to take care of my family and I have responsibilities at church and on the school board.
“I study His word and He has promised to be faithful. There have been droughts. And if you look through Scripture, God sustains people through the drought. It's tough, it requires change and hardship, but you come out the other side with a closer relationship to God because it makes you more dependent on Him.”
While areas of Oklahoma received some rains, other portions of the state, including most of southern, southwestern and western Oklahoma, and the Panhandle, are in an ongoing battle with various stages of drought.
Hope dried to dust
Muller said they wrapped up the summer 2010 crops with great fall harvest conditions. The cotton, irrigated and dry land, as well as double crop grain sorghum, were great crops, he said.
“Little did we know that these sunny, dry fall conditions were the start of years of drought,” he said. Wheat in the fall of 2010 was dusted into thirsty soils that would become the new norm. Dusting-in occurs when farmers plant to dry soil and then hope for rain.
Since then, they've had one good harvest, the 2012 wheat crop, Muller said.
The 2011 and 2013 wheat crops were bad. The 2011, 2012 and 2013 cotton, sorghum, hay and peanut crops have been bad.
Muller's explanation of bad: “Zero to 30 percent of normal.”
Muller said he thought in spring 2012 that the drought was breaking.
“The wheat crop received small rains every so often and the horrible wind and heat from 2011 subsided,” he said. “The drought monitor was showing improvement. In hindsight, the 2012 wheat crop for us was a miracle made on very little overall rainfall.”
But those thoughts, hopes of an ending drought, shriveled. Because of a well, he has a small amount of cotton that he'll harvest this year.
“This spring, 2013, we anxiously watched as the drought retreated steadily from the east,” he said. “Acre after acre was removed from the drought category across Oklahoma. Lake after lake started filling up across the state. But it just never seemed to make it to us or our watershed.”
They did benefit from the “miracle mid-July rain that strangely came from the east,” he said.
“Even though it made little impact overall,” Muller said, “many of us recognized it for what it was, a reminder from God that He is in charge, can send us rain when He wants to, and we should not grow weary in waiting.”
Umbrellas and prayer
They gather between the black lamp posts and out in front of the steps.
Above them is mostly blue sky. That's why the pastor in the black suit stands before them gripping a Bible in his right hand. That sky has held few rain-bearing clouds in recent years.
The Jackson County Ministerial Alliance put the word out, via local radio and newspapers, in May that on Mother's Day, May 12, they would begin gathering at 8 on Sunday nights near the courthouse in Altus.
For how long? Every Sunday night until the drought breaks.
“We didn't think it would last this long,” said the Rev. Kevin Baker, pastor of Martha Road Baptist Church and a member of the ministerial alliance. “It's getting dark a lot earlier now, so we're going to have to make some changes. But we're still committed to prayer as a church in Altus until we get some relief.”
About a dozen people gathered on Mother's Day. Just a few weeks ago though, 75 people met. A church's praise team sings for about 15 minutes, a local pastor gets things started and then they break into small circles of five or six to pray, Baker said.
“What I've noticed over the summer is that people, after the prayer time, will just hang around and fellowship,” Baker said. “It's allowed us to come together as a body of Christ, where without the drought we wouldn't have been doing that.”
As the drought lingers, the effects have expanded, Baker said.
“You know, the first three years of the drought — this is our third summer to go through this — the first couple of summers it was predominantly the farmers that were affected because they weren't able to irrigate,” Baker said. “Now Tom Steed, which is our reservoir for drinking water, is low and we've gone into water restrictions in town. So now, for the non-farming families, it's gotten really serious too.
“I think a lot of people have really woken up to the fact that we could be looking at the 1930s again for western Oklahoma where it didn't rain for a long time.”
But, he says, the faith that rain will come remains.
“At our recent ministerial alliance meeting, we talked about the annual Thanksgiving service we have the Sunday before Thanksgiving,” Baker said. “We're looking at, if we're still praying for rain at that time, trying to combine those two together.
“Even if it has rained and the reservoirs are full, we still want to tie those two together because as a community we want to pray with thanksgiving for what we have.”
Adjusting to drought
Adjustments have come with the waiting. Muller has eliminated one full-time employee position and three seasonal positions. The one-and-a half employees remaining have had three years of reduced hours and shortened work weeks.
“Crop insurance and carry-over from 2010 has kept us in business,” he said. “A positive implication has been that I have had more time to spend with my family because I get to come home before they go to bed.”
Another adjustment is that he's split his applications of fertilizer. He applies some at planting, then waits to see if conditions warrant adding more later.
The vehicles, tractors and harvesters are aging because he can't afford to update them. Of course, Muller's not putting as many hours on the harvesters.
“But despite the drought, the weeds seem to keep coming and need to be battled,” he said.
When he speaks of battles, again, he knows he's not alone. Many are challenged by the drought.
“The local cotton gin I use just voted to merge with another cooperative on the other side of the county, over 80 years of tradition gone,” Muller said “After years of ginning 15,000 to 23,000 bales annually, we only ginned 3,000 the past two seasons. Cotton gins are hurting bad, as well as those who supply and repair them.”
But with that said, Muller swings his perspective all the way from challenged to blessed.
‘I am very blessed'
“I find it sad that so often we forget to remember God in times of prosperity, (that we) must face losing everything before reaching out to Him,” Muller said.
Then he asks the next question.
“So how am I doing?”he said. “I am great. My wife and children are in good health, we have food, clothing and good shelter, I am very blessed. My family isn't staring at a slab of concrete where our house used to be or had to bury a child killed by a tornado. Please join me in continuing to remember the spring storm victims.”