It’s always been lean on the Great Plains, but this time feels different
A 2,800-mile trip through climate change in three time zones
Gene Jackson hated to part with his 10-year-old mule Jackie. He had to put his best saddle on her for show at Valley Livestock Auction near Monte Verde, Colo.
The 19-year-old cattleman can’t justify feeding her in this drought, where water-intensive alfalfa is a precious commodity held back for 150 pairs of cows and calves running his family’s 1,500 acres in the San Luis Valley just off the Front Range of the Rockies.
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“A lot of people are getting out,” said Jackson, who works with his father and grandpa.
Gene is hanging tough. He’s smart, with an animal science degree from Trinidad State University. He believes his family has a good reputation at the bank. His 17-year-old brother intends to run cattle, too. They can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s not easy when the creek runs dry, as it has for decades on the Great Plains, the Rockies and the Southwest in an extended drought not witnessed in more than a millenium.
The trailers lined up for miles last fall at sale barns across the vast expanse of cattle country — from Texas up to North Dakota, and from Kansas to California — as everyone downsized, and many just shook the manure off their boots and got out.
It’s all about the water.
“Water is life,” Jackson said as he walked off toward Jackie.
“Water is life,” said Vidal Garcia, who runs cattle in the south of the valley. “And the government is fighting us tooth and nail.”
“Our leaders long ago fought for our right to our homeland, including the right to water, the right to life,” said Navajo Nation leader Chrystaline Curry, following March 22 arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in a contest with Arizona over demands to make water accessible to the tribe.
Without water, the pastures around Colby, Kan., turn brown and patchy. The corn last year was puny, 20 to 30 bushels per acre when 90 bushels are the norm on non-irrigated High Plains land. We Iowans get alarmed if corn doesn’t hit 200 bushels per acre dressed with petrochemicals in black, spongy soil.
It forces difficult decisions. Do you plant corn this year? The LaNiña hot-dry weather pattern of the past three years appears to have relented. Colby has seen relief in recent rains but remains in drought. Down the Great Western Cattle Trail from Dodge City to Amarillo, it’s in “exceptional drought,” the worst level, according to the March 30 National Drought Monitor at the University of Nebraska.
Gene Jackson, a cattleman in Colorado. Photos by John Russell
When you can’t grow corn in Kansas you have to haul it in from Iowa to finish steers in the huge feedlots owned by the big meatpackers or corporate barons. Corn has doubled in price through this drought. It makes everything more expensive. Ranchers have to buy water storage. Fewer cattle mean higher hamburger prices, even at the sale barn mess hall. The average age of an American farmer is 60. Out West, water and land are the two main limiting factors for young operators to jump in. That means fewer cattle in fewer hands.
It means higher food prices going forward. Egg prices are not going down long-term. Iowa is maxed out on pork production, much of it bound for an Asian population demanding more protein.
Corn is becoming too expensive for ethanol. Sure, Colby might have found a bit of spring relief but are you willing to bet the farm that it won’t dry out this summer? This drought has been going on for 20 to 30 years, and could run another 20 or 30. The world’s top scientists aren’t certain what’s around the bend except for this: human activity is cooking the Great Plains and Southwest. The Ogallala Aquifer is running out of water from irrigating corn out in the dust and rocks, and running those center pivots for alfalfa — not to mention the cattle and people who need a drink. The Republican River in Kansas and Nebraska is a trickle. The Colorado River that slakes Phoenix and Las Vegas is running full from a seres of 14 atmospheric river bombs that laid destruction up and down the Pacific Coast.
It’s always been tough eking out a living against the wind. That seems to be the prevailing attitude. You will be the last man standing. But that’s not how it always shakes out, as the lines at the sale barns testify.
Over the past two weeks we drove, videographer John Russell of Ohio and I, 2,800 miles from Storm Lake to Huntington Beach, Calif., (Surf City, USA) and back.
Our trip tracked that of Iowans who flocked West, a la Grapes of Wrath, during the Dust Bowl. Back then, they were bound for Long Beach and its naval port for jobs. They called it “Iowa By The Sea” and held an annual picnic that drew 100,000 Tall Corn State expatriates.
Chris Meyers’s dad was like them. He was living near Cleveland when his arthritis bothered him so that he pulled up stakes in 1947 and landed at Pasadena. Chris haunted Surf City as a teen and lived in a cottage by the beach while surfing, bartending and taking the extended route to a degree from Long Beach State.
Chris, 71, recalls Surf City when it was a sleepier place with salt marshes and seafood shacks. They paved paradise, songwriter Joni Mitchell noted, and you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. The salt marshes are built over with commercial properties along the Pacific Coast Highway that hugs the beach. Oil derricks pump off shore while traffic zips up Highway 1 and the Beach Boulevard. The derricks feed the cars that feed the wildfires, the mudslides, the tornadoes and the torrents of rain that came all winter and spring. It rained most of the three days we were there.
Huge tides and mountains of heaved sand inundated the high-flying condos that took the place of the cottage where Chris and his brother lived so free and easy back in the day. Since then, the weather has grown only more freakish as the concrete seeps to the ocean and the traffic swells.
“The perfect storm is what we’ve had,” Chris said as he tooled up and down the beaches with a surfboard, shaped by the legendary late rider Chris Hawk, that was moored to the roof of his Subaru. “This is the most rain I remember. Everybody’s tired of it. I don’t think anybody’s leaving because of it. There will always be people here.”
He’s no dummy. He can see what’s happening. He is an avid hiker, observing the pine forests denuded by bark beetles encouraged by the changing weather over the past three decades.
“I remember really thick forests that are now thousands upon thousands of dead trees,” he said. They become fodder for forest fires. If the flooding doesn’t get you, the fire might. Yet they keep coming for more.
Few people along the coast think about how climate pressures food prices. It is not something over the horizon beyond the derricks, it is happening now. Growers ripped up orchards in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of US produce production. Growers in the Imperial Valley were forced to limit consumption as critical reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell ran dangerously low from drought. They’re rebuilding thanks to record snowpack, but you cannot predict the weather. You can predict the trends. They are ominous.
Chris hadn’t thought a whole lot about the relationship between food prices and climate change himself. When a sodbuster from the Midwest points out that you can barely grow corn in Kansas anymore, it makes sense to him.
“It’s always been about water to us,” he said.
Dr. Dan O’Brien, Kansas State University.
So it is in Colby. Ranchers have organized in the northwest corner of Kansas to limit their pumping, called a local enhanced management area. Down south toward Dodge City and Garden City, the so-called “demand centers” where Tyson runs huge slaughter plants, they’re also talking about voluntarily limiting consumption to avoid sucking the aquifer dry.
“They have investments on the line,” said Kansas State professor and Extension agricultural economist Dr. Dan O’Brien at the Northwest Research Extension Center in Colby, a major cattle trade center of about 5,000 population.
Back in the 1880s after finding Colby, the White settlers wondered if they should just abandon it. A drought in 1915 made for “rough, rough times,” O’Brien noted, which got the prairie populist movement stoked. The Dust Bowl didn’t really end until World War II. There have been droughts since but not quite like this one. Each stress ushers out another cadre of cowboys.
Equity and capital tend to weather the downturns, O’Brien said. Those without are squeezed out. It’s a hard system to buck. The big players control increasingly captive crop and protein markets. Climate plays a huge role, as Steinbeck’s Tom Joad could have told you. Then it rained around Colby, or Lake Mead is full for now, and we can relax driving 80 miles an hour in a Winnebago to park it in the desert near a strip mall next to an alfalfa field irrigated directly from the Colorado River in spitting distance. The beautiful people are buying up land and building homes out near Gene Jackson in Colorado to get off the grid and out of the city, outbidding cattle producers. People continue to move to Salt Lake City as the lake dries up and the wind blows a cloud of toxic dust from its exposed basin. But hey, it snowed a bunch so we’re all good. For now. That’s good enough.
The system is bound up in itself, a national inertia of sorts — an object at rest tends to stay at rest, while an object in motion stays in motion. We all saw California on fire. Then we witnessed the devastating floods of just a month ago. From one extreme to the next. The derricks are running out in the Pacific and up on the High Plains, torching us invisibly while fueling us. Ditches suck water from the Colorado River to water alfalfa for cattle at the Arizona/California border. Everyone is suing each other over water while the noose of consolidation tightens on the broken communities awash in rural poverty, like Sugar City, Colo., where dilapidated homes are on painful display but seldom recognized. You see the ranch gate — let’s call it “WWJD Ranch” — and inside is parked a mobile home with an American flag blowing straight with the westerly. The state of Arizona says it has no obligations to plan for Navajo water despite corralling them into a land without it at the end of a Union soldier’s gun.
Australia was on fire, too. What does an Aussie truck driver do but head to the Grand Canyon with the Colorado down so far below? We asked him about the fires, and how we can change things. “Too many do-gooders out there,” he replied. “We need to burn more. The aboriginals have been doing it forever.”
Vidal Garcia, a cattleman.
Vidal Garcia, back at the livestock auction, said producers are making friends with the Native people. They will get water, he believes. “If they get water, we get water,” he reasoned.
The Navajo feel obliged to defend the land and water, in which they are in a kinship hard for the Winnebago driver to apprehend. But the government fights them. They might have found sympathy at the Supreme Court, but do they ever find justice? Or water?
Things are changing, fast. Solar arrays are sprouting in the desert with the spring flowers. Wind turbines, too. You wish that the Navajo could win one, for once, and become a major player in sustainable world energy production. They probably have to get past the Supreme Court first.
Our world food supply is endangered by us. Few people are more intimate with their environment than Gene Jackson. He has the confidence to go forward into uncertainty by dint of his legacy. Think of him at the meat counter or the drive-through window. He represents the last independent operator. The climate is giving him all he can handle. He loves it so. He describes how Jackie is better than a horse for moving cattle around rocky, steep terrain. She’s quick with strong legs and low to the ground. We didn’t hang around to see how she sold. We were off to get some more of that gas at the next filling station that the GPS map tells us is just beyond that horizon. Another bottle of water is purchased because it’s a long ride out there, and it sure is dry. You pay for it.
As the mural warns on the abandoned motel on a highway in the Navajo Nation off the beaten path of interstate freeways packed with campers and 18-wheelers:
“The American rent is due.”
There’s no avoiding it.
Art Cullen is the editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot in Northwest Iowa, where this column appeared. For more columns and editorials, please consider a subscription to the Times Pilot. Or, if you wish, you can make a tax-deductible gift to the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation to support independent community journalism in rural Iowa. Thanks.
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Water. Always water. Makes me want to rewatch Chinatown. Great column.
Enjoyed this article. You are certainly a voice in the wilderness up in Storm Lake. I am married to Jerry Nixon if you remember him from the past. I enjoy reading your work. I. Am also a fan of Heather Cox Richardson from Boston University. We live in Iowa City, the blue in a sea of red. Thanks for your work. Mary