Hot temps melt away Texas' agriculture business

The Austin Tree Farm in Texas.

Dan Pacatte runs daily operations at the farm.

Young seedlings are sprayed with water.

Bob Moon: You can add this to the mounting list of disasters this year: People down in Texas are suffering from the worst year-long drought in that state's history.
Last month's heat wave across the country was bad enough, but Texas is still steaming at 100 degrees and hotter. And being uncomfortable isn't the worst of it.

As Erika Aguilar reports from KUT in Austin, the dry spell is bringing with it growing economic pain.


Erika Aguilar: It's 10:30 in the morning and already the temperature on Dan Pacatte's tree farm is 94 degrees. Pacatte grows ornamental trees and sells them to nurseries and landscapers. A sprinkler showers one row, but the wet ground is still fractured as if a mini-earthquake ripped the sun-baked earth into chunks. He irrigates each tree row using one long silver pipe.

Dan Pacatte: And a whole cycle takes us about a week to move. By the end of that week, wherever we started, things are starting to wilt again.

His best-selling tree is the Crape Mertyle. Its red and pink flowers bloom despite a summer of bleached out lawns. But even nurseries are having clearance sales.

Pacatte: They won't buy. If they would normally buy 10, now they'll only want two or three.

Only six-and-half inches of rain have fallen in Texas since last July.

Pacatte: Our diesel bills that run the irrigation pumps are what we're judging it by. And they're at least three times, if not maybe four times, what they were last year.

Last week, economists estimated the drought cost farmers and ranchers $5.2 billion since November. Some agricultural experts advise ranchers to move livestock up north temporarily to greener pasture. Or ranchers can sell out and try again after the drought.

Dr. David Anderson is a livestock economist at Texas A&M University.

David Anderson: For every cow that a rancher is forced to sell, you know that cow is not going to have a calf next year. That calf won't become a steak 20 months after that. One of the things we will see is certainly some reduced supplies and higher prices on the meat side of things.

For Serry Earnhardt, selling out is not an option. She raises horses. She has a Craigslist ad online. She'll sell you a horse for $200 or even trade you one for hay. She points to a stack hay.

Serry Earnhardt: That is $850 worth of hay right there. Yes. Had it shipped in from Nebraska. Not the best hay.

Earnhardt's grazing field looks more like a dusty dirt-bike track. Hay is what's keeping the horses alive until it rains or someone buys them. She practically gave away 14 horses at the start of the summer.

Earnhardt: These are the thinnest my horses have ever, ever, ever been. That's why I gave some away, just because I knew I couldn't handle them so I got rid of the younger ones.

Earnhardt worries drought is the new Texas summer. And if it is, she's like many others in Texas might be out of business for good.

In Austin, I'm Erika Aguilar for Marketplace.

Dan Pacatte runs daily operations at the farm.

Young seedlings are sprayed with water.

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