As a youngster, I had numerous opportunities to sit on one of the wooden benches in front of my folk's grocery store and meat market and listen to the old farmers talk about crop conditions, the weather, and their hope of a better harvest than the previous year's.
The biggest gathering of farmers was typically on Saturday afternoon. These conversations got underway while the wives were inside the store busy doing the weekly shopping.
When times were hard, the benches became more crowded because fewer of those old farmers had enough spare change in their pockets to allow them the extravagance of strolling over to the Main Street Tavern and Domino Hall to pass the time away with a couple of friendly games and a few cold longnecks.
My dad, a farm raised boy, had purchased this business in the early 1950s, just about the time South Texas was getting into the grips of a major drought.
That drought hit Coastal Bend farmers and ranchers extra hard for about five years. But it seemed as though every other year we would get luck and catch some timely rainfall that would prevent a total crop failure to the degree that had occurred during the previous crop year.
Among the farmers, the weather (rainfall or the lack of it) was always the focus of these storefront visits. Usually someone with a good radio in his car would provide a summary of Henry Howell's weather forecast that was broadcast at noon over WOAI out of San Antonio. This was before TV in rural areas and his forecast was highly respected.
Once following a good rain, I remembered one of my granddad's friends remark: "That two-inch rain was worth about more than all the money in the vault at the Farmer's State Bank."
I remember that grandpa agreed, so the gentleman's statement must have been "right on" target. At that point in my life, it was hard to understand how water falling from the sky could be worth as much as all the money in our town's bank.
About 10 years later, as a high school FFA member with livestock and crop projects, I became keenly aware of how a timely rain could mean the difference between profit and loss, not only on my projects, but also for the entire farming community.
A timely soaking rain for Coastal Bend farmers and ranches is typically refereed to by news reporters and broadcast media weather forecasters as "a multi-million dollar rain." The statement is certainly true when a widespread and timely rainfall event produces in excess of an inch of rainfall across a wide area.
In South Texas, that critical time for a "make or break" rain is typically during the first two weeks of May. Just such an event occurred across most of Nueces, Jim Wells and San Patricio counties on the evening of May 15 and continued through the early morning hours of Friday, May 16. What a blessing for the crops and the grazing land alike.
The majority of the reporting stations in Nueces County had about one inch of rainfall during this period. And for grain sorghum and cotton fields that had enough moisture to sprout a suitable stand of plants back in March and April, the rain occurred just in the nick of time.
With some additional favorable weather during the next 60 to 75 days, the region could still achieve a modest to good crop despite the lack of rainfall during the winter and early spring.
Rain also stimulated green grass growth in pastures and finally curtailed expensive supplemental cattle feeding demands that have been in progress for many area cattle operations since just before Thanksgiving.
Now that rain has brightened crop prospects, Coastal Bend County Extension Agents are finalizing plans for the annual county crop demonstration tour days. According to Extension Agent Jeff Stapper, Nueces County will conduct its Crop Demonstration Tour on Friday, June 13. It will begin at 8:30 a.m. at the Showbarn in Robstown.
In addition to cotton and grain sorghum plot visits, Dr. Travis Miller, Associate Department Head for Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M in Collage Station, will give a presentation related to the development of on-farm or small cooperative bio-diesel production facilities that use locally produced oil seed crops as their feed stock.
This has been a common approach to meeting farm fuel needs in may part of Europe for years. With skyrocketing diesel fuel prices and little or no relief in sight, area farmers may need to take a close look at this option. During the first 15 days of May, diesel prices jumped 30 cents per gallon (an average of 2 cents per day) with no signs of stabilizing soon.
If the fuel prices continue at a runaway pace, farmers may need to revert back to the common practice during the "horse and mule days" when 25 to 30 percent of the farmland was reserved for growing forage and grains for the draft animals. That approach may help farmers survive difficult economic times, but it will not do much to expand global food supplies or reduce the fuel bill for the average citizen.
A lot of change has occurred during the past 50 years (except South Texas farmers and ranchers needing rain in May). Until recently, many of those changes led to cheaper production costs. Now, the absence of economical fertilizer and fuel sources for farmers means little chance for a continuation of a cheep food supply.
Typically, U.S. consumers have spent as little as 10 to12 percent of their annual income on food purchases. Unless input costs for production of basic farm commodities decline to a level that will allow farmers and livestock producers a reasonable operating margin, consumers will continue to devote more of their wage earnings to food purchases.
No matter how you look at this problem, higher energy costs have a dramatic effect on food costs. Not only from the production of raw commodities, but with higher costs to process, transport and store those food items. Getting food to our plates is an energy intensive effort.
Here is just one example, the energy related cost to produce bread is much greater than the 8 to 10 cents worth of wheat grain that goes into making that $1.39 loaf of bread.
Harvey Buehring is the former Agricultural Extension Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at (361) 767-5223.