CARBON, Texas – The recent outbreak of grassfires across drought-stricken Texas and Oklahoma has compounded the misery of many farmers and ranchers dealing with the effects of one of the worst dry spells on record.
Dozens of farmers and ranchers across Texas have lost property, income and livestock to the blazes that have ravaged more than 250,000 acres and 340 homes in North and West Texas since late December. Besides cattle and hay, the losses included hundreds of miles of fences and dozens of barns, tractors and other equipment.
When Gayla Stacy stands on her front porch and gazes at the 160 acres of fields around her, all she sees is black.
Wildfires that swept through two weeks ago scorched grazing land for her family’s 150-head of cattle and burned the grass that the Stacys sell as hay. The flames also destroyed their barn, 150 rolls of hay and most of their farm equipment.
“We’ve worked 35 years to get what we’ve got, and we’re glad our house didn’t burn, but it still hurts,” said Stacy, 53. “It’s knocked a big hole in our livelihood.”
In Oklahoma, grass fires have burned more than 400,000 acres, destroyed more than 220 homes and businesses and killed two people since Nov. 1.
Exact financial losses are not yet available because ranchers are still assessing the damage, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The grass fires have forced some ranchers to buy hay to feed their livestock or led them to try to lease new grazing land for their cattle.
Like many Texas farmers, Truett Spruill was already hurting from a meager hay crop because of one of the worst droughts in the region in 50 years.
He had recently bought more than 200 bales in far West Texas, and the dozen or so that had been brought to his Carbon farm were burned in the Jan. 1 fire, along with his home, barn, some cattle and half of his wife’s 50 registered purebred dogs and a dozen litters of puppies about to be sold.
The couple had “not a lick of insurance,” said his wife, Peggy Spruill, and it is going to be expensive to bring in the rest of the hay to feed the surviving livestock.
“He says we’re too old to start over,” the 61-year-old woman said. “He says, `I don’t think I have that much life in me or energy.’ But we’ll get by.”
Even before the wildfires, Texas’ hay crop was expected to be worth only about half of 2004’s $800 million crop because of the drought, said Carl Anderson, professor emeritus of cotton economics at Texas A&M University.
Last fall, before the wildfires, Texas agriculture officials estimated the drought could cost $1 billion by the spring, including lost income from low hay production, higher feed costs, and the selling of cows sooner and for lower prices.
“We’re sitting on top of what very well could be an economic disaster,” said Gene Hall, spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau. “A lot of praying for a good soaking rain is all that can be done.”
President Bush has issued a disaster declaration that makes federal aid available to nine Texas counties.
Gayla Stacy and her husband, Terry, plan to apply. But so far they have been amazed by help from the community. Their neighbors’ rodeo friends in other states have sent free hay bales to Carbon farmers.
Terry Stacy, a fourth-generation farmer, had planned to sell 50 heifers in a few months after fattening them up, but now wants to sell them earlier because the fire increased his feed costs. He hopes the market is not flooded with ranchers doing the same thing.
The couple also are praying for rain and a mild winter so their grazing land grows back although it would take a few years to harvest another hay crop.
“I feel like everybody’s got hopes,” Gayla Stacy said. “I don’t think this is going to beat us down.”