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Oklahoma farmers face challenges in Altus-area drought

From Oct. 1, 2010 through midday Friday, the Oklahoma Mesonet weather network station at Altus had recorded 42.72 inches of rain. Normal for that time period is 83.95 inches. That translates to 41.23 inches below normal for that stretch.
by Bryan Painter Published: September 15, 2013

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.”

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by Bryan Painter
Assistant Local Editor
Bryan Painter, assistant local editor, has 31 years’ experience in journalism, including 22 years with the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. In that time he has covered such events as the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah...
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