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The dry life: local farmers adjust to lack of water

The dry life: local farmers adjust to lack of water

en Chessman at Jubilee Farms. Chessman began cultivating his land in early 2012. Photo by James Coreas Contributing Photographer

The dry life: local farmers adjust to lack of water
January 21
08:25 2014

Trent Johnson // Features Editor

On a patch of land, a bearded man with a straw hat and a wrinkled, sweat-soaked blue flannel shirt slams his shovel into the ground, turning over his soil. The man—surrounded by his lush harvest of purple-colored eggplant, vibrant cherry tomatoes and crisp green cucumbers—works on this farm nearly every day.

Ben Chessman, operator of Jubilee Farms, currently rents this 1 1/2 acre area to cultivate his vegetables.  The 2012 harvest season marked only his second, but his land rapidly changed in the past few seasons as Chessman turned his first year struggle into a slightly profitable success.

On a September day, only a rusty fence separates his small piece of life from a dry, yellow plot of death. The bright blades of grass are still damp from the previous night’s rain—the first drops of water to fall on this field in months.

Chessman’s tiny green farm is a minority of healthy land in Denton County as the region carried the labels of “severe” and “extreme” drought throughout the summer and is currently in a “moderate” drought, according to the National Weather Service Forecast Office.

“A crisis exists in Texas as our water capacity is failing to keep up with our growth,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said in a statement. “We must find a balanced solution that allows farmers to continue producing safe and reliable food while also providing communities with the water needed to sustain our families and encourage business growth.”

Jubilee Farms owner Ben Chessman pulls out weeds near his crops. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing Photographer

Jubilee Farms owner Ben Chessman pulls out weeds near his crops. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing Photographer

The need for water is so drastic that Texas approved Proposition 6, a state constitutional amendment, on Nov. 5. From that, the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas was born. It received a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the state’s ironically named “rainy day” fund.

Money from the fund will be set aside to support plans such as water conservation projects, building reservoirs and the importation of water.

Locally, the need for water has gotten so desperate that by 2060, the Region C Water Board is planning to have spent $21 billion on water conservation plans, including the import of more than 500 billion gallons of water.

In Denton’s time of expansion and water scarcity, everyone is affected—businesses, local governments and individuals—yet there is little public awareness as to the scope of the drought or the requirements of people to lessen the severity.

Those who farm, like Chessman, know the realities of this water shortage and are locked in an everyday struggle to find ways to remain viable in times of scarcity.

“This is an extremely difficult place to do what I do,” Chessman says.

The man and his thirsty farm

Chessman is one of many farmers in the state harshly affected by the dry climate. There are currently 243,437 farms and ranches in Texas, said Lindsey Pope, the public information officer of the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Through the heat and dry spells, Chessman continues for one reason.

“Farming is what I love,” Chessman says. “I wish I could make a living at it, but at this point I’m just not able to.”

Jubilee Farm remains Chessman’s hobby rather than his livelihood. To make ends meet he works at a zoo, where he describes his position as “an exotic animal babysitter.”

Though he clocks in for work every weekday, Chessman is on the farm during his free time. And while his produce doesn’t profit enough for him to cultivate it full-time, for now he’s satisfied.

“Success is more than making bank,” Chessman says. “I’m feeding myself and my wife. We eat only food from my farm except for beef we sometimes buy.”

Even though he beams with positive energy, Chessman has experienced hardships while dealing with water. Last summer he relied solely on the rain, which proved fruitless and frustrating. The financial struggles that resulted caused Chessman to adapt his approach.

“I tried to not irrigate, but I got to the point where I just couldn’t depend on the rain and for three or four months straight just couldn’t grow anything,” Chessman says. “I had nothing going.”

Now Chessman uses city water. He currently practices drip irrigation, which allows him to maximize his output using tubes with small holes that release low pressure water directly at the base of the plants.

Andrea Buxton picks and chooses from her assortment of plants at Denton Backyard Farms. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing Photographer

Andrea Buxton picks and chooses from her assortment of plants at Denton Backyard Farms. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing Photographer

Chessman constantly thinks of water, both in use and need. Despite his new approach and its success, he still experiences many pains producing food—including price.

“I pay for every drop, so if I’m going to grow anything during these months, I’m going to have to irrigate everything. It’s really expensive,” Chessman says. “[Last August], my water bill was about $200.”

With Proposition 6 now a reality, Chessman has expressed initial skepticism on this new solution.

“It simply puts a tiny bandage on a gushing wound,” Chessman says. “It’s encouraging the public’s ignorance of this crisis and appearing to be proactive in order to secure votes.”

As a farmer and municipal water user, Chessman said the best way for people to realize the issue is through education and self-awareness. Just yesterday, people were complaining about the water, to which the rain-dependent man cringed.

“Most people don’t get the connection,” he says. “They complain about the rain. They have no idea they can only live here because of rain. We’re all dependent on it, not just me.”

What the drought means 

Before Proposition 6 was green lit, the U.S. Census released its growth projections.

Texas has eight of the top 15 growing cities and is expecting an 82 percent population increase between 2010 and 2060—from 25 million to 46 million people—according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Denton and its surrounding counties’ populations, located in Region C of Texas, are no exception to the growth and are projected to grow 96 percent in addition to a water demand increase of 86 percent, according to the “Water For Texas 2012 State Water Plan.”

As of now, the region relies on land reservoirs for the majority of its water. Reservoirs in Region C are struggling to reach capacity, currently at about 73 percent full. That figure is even smaller in comparison to last year at this time when the bodies of water were at about 81.1 percent, according to Water Data for Texas.

While acknowledging the drought’s effects on people, Denton water utility analyst Joel Nickerson says that this drought, dating back to 2011, hasn’t been that bad for the county—at least in comparison to others.

“We luck out because of Lake Lewisville and Lake Ray Roberts,” Nickerson says. “Our water supply never looked as bad as Dallas. They’re still in bad shape to this day because their lakes don’t fill up like ours.”

The Pecan Creek Water Reclamation Plant, where the city Denton cleans water. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing photographer

The Pecan Creek Water Reclamation Plant, where the city Denton cleans water. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing photographer

The Reservoirs used by Denton—Lake Lewisville and Ray Roberts—were designed to beat the “seven year drought of record,” which occurred from 1950 to 1957, he says. That, Nickerson says, is the worst drought in modern history, before suggesting it might not be for long.

“That one year [1951] was worse than this drought,” Nickerson says. “From ’52 to ’57 was like 2011 every year, but this drought may turn out to be worse. Just hasn’t been so far.”

With the state’s projected expansions, Nickerson says that droughts don’t have to reach the damaging levels of the 1950s’ dry spell. As long as people keep coming to Texas, the state and region will have a smaller margin for error.

Climate changes have made droughts longer and drier, Nickerson adds, while acknowledging growth stresses reservoirs more and more, perhaps forcing an eventual import of water from the East, mirroring the Region C Water Board’s plan to bring in 500 billion gallons of water.

One man serving on the Region C Water Board is UNT biology professor Thomas LaPoint, who says the Board is worried about where they would potentially gather extra water.

“The discussion has (Region C Water Board) scared,” LaPoint says. “They don’t really know where to turn for additional water resources and in the next five to 10 years it will impinge on the growth of this area.”

LaPoint said that because other locations are experiencing similar population growth, it could be difficult for them to give up water for other places, such as the North Texas region.

“We won’t be able to do that,” LaPoint says. “Oklahoma is growing and they’re looking for water. Louisiana is growing and their population is going to keep their water. We just don’t have this seemingly endless amount.”

In LaPoint’s eyes, the only way to conserve water during this time of scarcity coupled with expansion is to reduce individual use, which accounts for 85 percent of water use in the region.

“To have enough water in the next 10 years, especially with the expanding growth, we have to cut down on individual use,” LaPoint says.

Education and cutting down

One of the main practices instituted by the city of Denton when managing water is instituting a summer block rate, Nickerson says. During the summer, users pay much higher rates when they cross various thresholds.

From May to October, if municipal users surpass the 15,000-gallon limit, the price of water rises $3.70 to $5.35 per gallon. Water becomes even more costly as users go past 30,000 and 50,000.

With the block rate coinciding with the increase of low-flow toilets and other home appliances easing the strain on water, Nickerson says that the city’s per capita use has actually started to decline.

As a utility employee, Nickerson believes the only truly effective way to get people’s attention is to keep instituting the block pay, raising the price of water incrementally.

“We know people pay attention to it, because they always call us angry,” he says.

In the education department, Denton County is behind Dallas and Tarrant County, which have each spent millions on advertising. Nickerson says their effects, so far, have been limited.

“Higher prices are just the easy way to go,” Nickerson says. “Right now, people might not notice, because it’s only $1 or a few dollars, but as the price goes up more people will pay attention.”

LaPoint, the UNT biology professor, believes education is most important, pointing out that an alarming number of people in the region and in the world are unaware of the dangers stemming from a lack of water. The ideologies of the past are dangerous, he says.

“The Metroplex has had the mindset that ‘we’re not really, western, we’re eastern’ and the east always gets a lot of water,” LaPoint says. “But things are changing and we’re not getting that water anymore.”

Some people aware of the issues are farmers like Chessman, but with the prices climbing year after year, it is expensive for him to maintain his farm.

While Nickerson sympathizes with people in that position, he also believes that commercial users will have to prepare for cutbacks and higher prices as water becomes sparser.

“If he couldn’t make his business work out, he would have to stop doing business here,” Nickerson says. “If you can’t pay, then your business probably shouldn’t be operating the way it is.”

LaPoint agrees that agricultural users would have to fall in line with everyone else, because if water use doesn’t decline at a faster pace, he predicts that eventually expansion could be halted.

“If the entire region is on a water diet, you can’t have a company or farm using an unlimited amount,” he says.

Moving always an option

In a booth to the left of Jubilee Farm’s, a young woman greets Denton Community Market customers with a wide grin. Every smile appears meant for each passersby individually as they ponder about the produce for sale—lain out on a cloth covering the plastic white table.

The wind blows gently, gusting softly through her curly light brown hair, while ruffling her dark long-sleeved shirt with every little breeze.

Andrea Buxton, part owner of Denton Backyard Farms, operates three pieces of land, including a 1/4-acre plot in North Denton.

Buxton, with Matt Gorham, started cultivating the farms in January 2012, after discovering the wonders of locally grown food. Denton Backyard Farms is now a fixture in the local produce scene.

Matt Gorham and Andrea Buxton at Denton Backyard Farms. The two began farming in January 2012. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing Photographer

Matt Gorham and Andrea Buxton at Denton Backyard Farms. The two began farming in January 2012. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing Photographer

“We had a junky backyard and eventually we converted a structure into a greenhouse so we could grow what we wanted,” she says. “It sort of took off and eventually we just added more land.”

The duo’s farm is so successful that it serves as their main source of income, Buxton says.

Instead of paying high prices for water, Buxton says her farm survives nearly entirely on rainwater. When necessary, Denton Backyard Farms institutes the same drip irrigation system used by Jubilee’s Chessman, unlike larger, commercial farms.

“We conserve water way better than factory farms do,” Buxton says. “It’s a lot less expensive on the environment.”

Though they currently get by, Buxton says that if the day comes when there isn’t enough water to go around that they would just move where the water is, suggesting somewhere else in the country.

“We really are at the mercy of the environment,” she says.

She’s not alone, as Chessman has also thought about moving his business elsewhere, but realizes there will be downsides wherever he goes.

“I don’t particularly want to farm in Denton, but it’s become my home,” Chessman says. “I’ve thought about going other places, but other places have their own challenges. I just hate the heat.”

Even though both acknowledge the situation, with plans like “Proposition 6,” the day of packing up and moving the farm may never come to actualization.

In the meantime these citizens will continue to cherish the rain because with it comes water and that’s a resource that farmers, municipal users, Denton County, Texas and the world will never get enough of.

“Water is life, man,” Chessman says. “It just is.”

Feature photo: Ben Chessman at Jubilee Farms. Chessman began cultivating his land in early 2012. Photo by James Coreas / Contributing Photographer

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