Deteriorating drought conditions have some Oklahoma farmers feeling déjà vu
As the weeks and months have gone by, Oklahoma’s drought map has changed from yellow to dark red, indicating higher drought severity.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, every portion of the state is experiencing some level of drought. Extreme and exceptional drought, the two worst categories, jumped from 47% in August to 64% at the end of September.
State Climatologist Gary McManus says last month was the driest September since 1956. The most intense drought is now at levels not seen since early 2013. He says a couple of factors have intensified this particular drought.
“The current drought we're seeing is two droughts in one. We had the drought that started back in August 2021, but we also had the flash drought that exacerbated the conditions that began the second week of June in 2022 and those two combined have given us our current situation.” said McManus.
Right now, we’re in a La Niña weather pattern, and during this time drought is more likely to occur across the southern U.S.
“So, we’re in our third year of La Niña out in the equatorial pacific waters. That cooling of the oceanic waters can often lead to warmer and dryer than normal conditions across the southern United States and Oklahoma can get caught up in that climate signal. That’s certainly helped spur the drought forward over the last two years,” McManus said. “This is certainly right up there with all those years of that 2010-15 drought. The difference is it's just so far one year.”
That drought McManus referenced is one many producers will never forget. It was arguably the worst drought seen in the state since the 1950s. However, this year's hot temperatures and drought are causing déjà vu for some farmers.
Rod Ardoin owns and operates Acadian Family Farm, an organic produce farm in rural Caddo County near Fort Cobb. He came to Oklahoma in 2011. Looking at this year’s drought he’s having flashbacks to the summer of 2011.
“That summer was terrible. It was so hot. Sweet potatoes [are] our biggest crop. What happened that year we didn’t hardly have any sweet potatoes—it’s something called lignification. When it’s too hot, that root will just make a straight root. It will never swell. And it doesn't make any potatoes. That happened to us in ‘11 and again in ‘12”, said Ardoin.
The farm started harvesting some of the crop and it’s not looking good.
“We started digging here the other day in early September and there ain’t nothing there—I mean, nothing. We got about one acre I think from the set. Probably a 40% crop. And this is the worst that’s going into the shed since [2011 and 2012],” he said.
Rod says drought and high temperatures have not only destroyed his sweet potato crop, but his bottom line has been impacted even further due to higher electricity costs to pump water for irrigation.
Other extreme weather events this year have plagued his operation. Rod says multiple hail storms earlier in the season took out a huge portion of his vegetables and damaged farm equipment.
Elsewhere, drought is forcing Oklahoma cattle ranchers to make tough decisions. Some are prematurely selling off cattle herds. Dry conditions have caused a hay shortage and ponds are drying out leaving many ranchers with limited options to sustain their herds.
Scientists say as the climate continues to change droughts like this and severe storms will likely become more frequent and extreme.
“These people think they’re farmers in other regions, but you’re not a farmer until you can make more than one crop in Oklahoma. Because this is like the Olympics here,” laughed Ardoin.
The outlook from the Climate Prediction Center indicates temperatures will likely stay above average and rain chances remain low.
“Unfortunately, if it works according to how we load the dice when we see La Niña, it could lead to more warm and dry conditions through the cool season. So, starting right about now through spring of next year we could see more of these same type of conditions,” said McManus.
The current drought is in its infancy compared to the 2010 drought, however, things can change quickly. The state’s climatologist says all it takes is a remnant of a hurricane to move up over the state and we could see drought relief in a hurry. But until then, all we can do is just hope this drought won’t be the one of nearly a decade ago.
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