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SOUTH TEXAS - The soil crumbled beneath Russell Boening's boots as he walked onto his harvested field of sorghum in Floresville, a small town southeast of San Antonio.

A gentle breeze brought momentary relief as the early August sun beat down atop his cream-colored straw hat. Boening kicked at the earth, sending up a small cloud of dust. This year's harvest was disappointing.

"It's powder dry," he said. "We did make some hay off of what was left here, but we didn't make any grain. We tried to make what we could."

More than 70% of Texas is experiencing severe drought conditions during one of the most sweltering summers that the state's farmers and ranchers can remember. Floresville is experiencing exceptional drought conditions, the highest and driest tier classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

For hundreds of years, farmers and ranchers in Texas battled weather extremes that threatened their livelihoods. In the epic drought of the 1950s, the state received up to 50% less rain than usual. This year, farmers and ranchers reported similar, if not worse, rainfall measurements.

Victoria, which normally receives 40 inches of rain a year, reported about 12 as of early August, one cotton farmer said. A rancher in Pleasanton reported 7¾ inches of rain in the past 12 months, as opposed to the normal 26 to 28 inches.

Boening, who also serves as president of the Texas Farm Bureau, said Floresville has received about 2½ to 3 inches of rain since Nov. 1. By August, there is usually about 18 or 20 inches of measurable rain, he said.

"I've been doing this for 41-plus years," Boening said. "It's never been this dry in our area in my lifetime."

Not only is it dry throughout the state, but costs to run an agricultural business continue to rise to unsustainable levels. A lengthy drought for an agricultural business, combined with soaring inflation rates, is like watching money burn. And this season has been extraordinarily fiery.

Agriculture and inflation

Steve Bauer is a rancher in Kerrville who owns a store that supplies equipment to local farmers and ranchers. In the last year, Bauer said costs due to inflation have hit his small business, forcing inputs — or cost of operating items — for farmers and ranchers to go up as well.

A bale of hay at Double L Ranch & Wildlife Feed is about $160, up from $90 last year. A bag of cattle feed last year was about $350 to $400, but now it's up to $600, Bauer said.

In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, taken every five years, expenditures for farmers and ranchers nationwide were nearly $326.4 billion. But things have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic and the drought.

Expenditures for farmers and ranchers across the country rose to $392.9 billion in 2021, up from $366.2 billion in 2020. Feed, farm services, livestock and poultry-related expenses, labor and rent accounted for about half of farmers' expenses.

As a producer, Bauer said his inputs have gone way up this year — like every other rancher's — and managing livestock has gotten expensive. A drought added on top of inflation makes it difficult to keep cattle fed and hydrated.

"My wife and I have reduced our herd by 30 percent already," Bauer said. "I've been fortunate and have got enough that I can kind of spread them out and hopefully maintain my herd and be able to come out the other side of this when it does start raining again."

Yields coming up short

Boening said he knew in January that this year would be tough. After a dry November and December, the rain looked like it was going to be scarce through the summer.

"It was shaping up to be a tough year," he said. "Now, we had no idea it was going to be this tough."

To adapt and prepare for what he predicted would be a difficult harvest, Boening said he switched some of his acres to sorghum, which is more drought tolerant than corn or cotton.

In one field of dryland sorghum, the stalk had grown to about knee high when it was harvested, Boening said. With adequate rainfall, the grains would have been chest high.

For a while, some of Boening's crops were irrigated using water from the San Antonio River, but the water levels got so low that he hasn't been able to irrigate in more than two months.

"Without water, it's tough," he said. "You can't grow anything."

Brian Adamek, a corn and cotton farmer in Victoria, knows the feeling all too well. Adamek farms about 2,000 acres near the coast. This year, his yields have been up to 50% less than what he typically harvests. He figures he'll lose about $750 an acre on his 2,000-acre South Texas farm this year because of the drought.

There were pockets of rain throughout the season, but it was certainly not enough to amount to anything, he said. What affected his crops the most was the early and persistent heat, Adamek said.

"When you get the heat when the corn is trying to pollinate, that's not a good thing," he said. "It will cause the ears not to form correctly."

Right now, Adamek said he pays about 40% to 50% more for fertilizer, chemicals and seed.

Bauer has been ranching his entire life, and even through some of the toughest droughts, he said he wouldn't trade his profession for anything else.

In a meeting with the Texas Farm Bureau, Bauer said someone asked if any of the farmers and ranchers in the room had gambled. They all looked at each other, not a single one raised their hands, he said.

Then, they admitted that yes, they were all gamblers — optimistic ones, Bauer said.

"Yeah, we're gambling, but we're proud of it," Bauer said. "Because the ultimate thing is we get to feed the world."