The Emotional Toll of Drought

The Emotional Toll of Drought

by Dan Macon of Flying Mule Farm, Auburn, CA

This morning, I awoke to another depressingly beautiful January day – clear skies and an expected high temperature here in Auburn of close to 70 degrees. I say depressing, because we should be in the midst of our rainy season here – but since December 1, we’ve measured less than one inch of precipitation. And there doesn’t look to be much moisture in our future, either – a long range forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, “below median precipitation (and above normal temperatures mentioned earlier) during the height of the climatological rainy season support a continuation and possible intensification of drought conditions across California.” Earlier this week, AccuWeather predicted rain for the weekend of February 1. As I check their forecast this morning, they’ve backed off on this prediction. Even the television “meteorologists” have quit using words like “beautiful” to describe our weather pattern – which must mean this drought is getting serious.

As our drought has worsened, I’ve started watching the Ken Burns’ film The Dust Bowl. The narrative quotes extensively from the writing of Caroline Henderson, a farmer who lived in the Oklahoma panhandle. In her “Letters from the Dust Bowl” published in the Atlantic Monthly in the 1930s, she wrote, “Many a time I have found myself tired out from having tried, unconsciously and without success, to bring the distant rainclouds nearer to water our fields. I’m beginning to see how worse than useless is this exaggerated feeling of one’s own responsibility.” As I drove to work this morning, I found myself looking hopefully (and ultimately, uselessly) at the clouds drifting over the Sierra crest. Indeed, I find that most of my thoughts at present revolve around the weather. Driving though the foothills where I live and the Montezuma Hills (in the Sacramento Delta) where I work, the parched landscape is depressing and scary. I often mutter to myself about plans for dealing with the dryness. I lay awake at night worrying about what the future holds for our farm.

As The Dust Bowl makes clear, drought also takes an emotional toll on farmers and ranchers. Samia and I have raised sheep for more than 20 years. For the last 9 years, we’ve been trying to increase the scale of our operation to allow for some financial success. We’ve kept our best ewes and their daughters – building our flock to its current size. In this process, we’ve become attached to our animals and to the seasonal rhythms of working with them. On January 31, I will take 30 or so of these ewes to the Escalon Livestock Auction – and I’ll admit that I’ll probably get choked up a bit when I drive away. Those 30 ewes represent a great deal of hard work and sacrifice on my part and on the part of my family. If we’re to stay in business and, more importantly, take care of our land, we absolutely have to sell them – but this rationalization won’t make it any easier. Once again, Caroline Henderson writes more eloquently than I can about this feeling: “But of all our losses, the most distressing is the loss of our self-respect. How can we feel that our work has any dignity when the world places so little value on the products of our toil?” I don’t think she meant that prices were too low; rather, I think she was distressed by the fact that the earth wasn’t cooperating in her family’s efforts to grow a crop.

The drought, obviously, will strain our business financially – which has an emotional price as well. We are buying hay at a time of year that normally brings us enough grass to support our sheep. We’ll have fewer lambs to sell this year. Because we won’t be able to irrigate as much summer pasture, we won’t likely be able to supply our community with grass-fed lamb. Like Caroline Henderson, a good deal of my sense of self (and self-worth) is tied up in my work – I’m a shepherd. Selling animals, from an emotional perspective, feels like a failure to me. I know of cattle producers in other parts of the state that have sold out entirely – liquidating herds that took two and three generations of their family to build. I’m beginning to understand that the term “the Great Depression” referred to the nation’s emotional state as well as economic conditions.

In his book The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan describes the impacts of the Dust Bowl on farming and ranching families in the Great Plains. During the height of that drought, the federal government bought cattle, drove them into trenches, and shot them – reducing grazing pressure on parched rangelands to help hold the soil in place. I can’t imagine the emotional price that those families paid. I find it frightening that this year is shaping up to be drier (at least here in California) than the worst of those Dust Bowl years. However, I also find it amazing (and hopeful) to read Egan’s accounts of families who stuck it out during the Dust Bowl – who rebuilt their farms (and their lives) when the rains finally returned and the soil stopped blowing. I hope I’m just as stubborn and resilient.

Sharing information and ideas with other farmers and ranchers does help me cope with the emotional aspects of the dry winter. I’ve created a Facebook group – the Farmer-Rancher Drought Forum – as a place to share information, ask questions and post photographs of drought conditions. I’ve talked to old timers who ranched through California’s prior droughts (most notably, the 1924 drought and the 1976-77 drought). I’ve attended workshops and have generally felt better when I got home – just knowing that others are dealing with similar issues (including the emotional issues I’ve described) will help make the drought easier to bear.

“Drought Story – Flying Mule Farm” on YouTube.

Dan Macon and his family have farmed in the Sierra Nevada foothills since 2001.