By most anyone’s judgment, Clint Abernathy is a good cotton farmer. Yields are consistently above average; fiber quality is good; and he’s judicious about conserving soil and moisture with efficient subsurface drip irrigation and no-till planting where feasible.

In 2008, Abernathy earned the Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Southwest region.

But this fall will mark the third year in a row he’s recorded a crop failure. Abernathy, who farms near Altus, Oklahoma, will harvest a few acres of dryland cotton from fields where spotty rainfall allowed cotton to survive.

But his irrigated acreage will fail, again.

 

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He, like other farmers in the Lake Lugert Water District, relies on the lake for irrigation water. The lake is virtually dry, down to about 12 percent capacity.

“We got enough water in 2011 to irrigate one time; we watered some fields twice,” Abernathy says. “But it was so hot and dry, we didn’t make a crop. And 2012 was the first time in 65 years that the water district did not deliver any irrigation water. It was the same this year. That’s a drastic change—no water released for two straight years.”

The Altus area, situated in the southwest corner of Oklahoma, remains one of the driest sections in the Southwest. As areas in the Texas High Plains and the Rolling Plains received scattered showers this summer, farmers in and around Altus watched clouds pass to the north, the south and the east.

“We’ve had 36 months of drought,” Abernathy says. “We made a huge crop in 2010, thanks to a July 4 rainfall. When we planted we didn’t have enough water in Lake Lugert to make the crop.”

Abernathy says the only period he knows that will compare to the last three years is the legendary drought of the 1950s. “And that was before my time.”

He’s farmed on his own since 1981 and has “been around the farm all my life. I’ve never seen a three-year stretch like this. What worries me is wondering if we are in the middle of a long-term drought or near the end. I sure hope it’s near the end.”

The area received “not much more than 10 inches of rain from January through October,” Abernathy says. “It was scattered; some areas got a little more, some a little less. We keep looking for the light at the end of this tunnel. Areas to the east and west have gotten good rains.”