Surviving the drought in Western Oregon

It was a very difficult summer. We suffered through more 90-degree days than any year in history. It was just plain hot and dry, the worst season that anyone around here could remember.

Oh, that was way back in 2017.

2018, of course, was even worse. Month upon month with no rain. Baking hot days for weeks at a time. In fact, the summer of ’18 was so bad that the USDA declared Linn County a Natural Disaster Area, adding my neighborhood to a long list of weather-scorched places across America.

This designation was enough to send a ripple of joy through the countryside, as ranchers were now free to sign up for emergency drought payments, payments based upon how many cattle or how many acres you manage. The bigger your operation, the greater your disaster, so the bigger your relief check. Ranchers made the sign of the cross and sent up a chorus of thanks, because no matter how difficult the markets or the weather, at least they had some good news: the USDA was going to send them some cash to help tide them over.

Finally, someone back in Washington had a good idea.

Perhaps I should go ahead and say it right now: I don’t think this is a good idea. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea, and very poor policy.

Several years back I read a book about disasters that made a huge impression on me. In “Deep Survival,” author Laurence Gonzales tries to answer a simple question: when disaster strikes, (e.g. plane crashes, avalanches, ship wrecks,) why do some people survive and others perish? After some fairly exhaustive research, Gonzales reduces his findings to three simple words: Perceive, Plan and Act.

Perceive: Even in times of extreme peril, some people simply cannot or will not admit that their situation has changed, that the conditions they are operating under are now new and different. In fact, many people simply refuse to acknowledge that anything is wrong. In a disaster situation, most of these people die.

Plan: To survive, those folks that have perceived the danger they are in must take the next step of forming a Plan, a strategy for dealing with the problems they face. Often, a successful plan is the result of group thinking, calling on the experience and expertise of several people in the group.

Act: Even after people have recognized the danger they face and developed a plan to overcome the problems, it is critical that the plan actually be instituted; action must be taken.

The failure to successfully complete any one of these steps typically results in failure, and in many cases death. Surviving a disaster without taking these steps relies strictly on luck: maybe someone will come and save you from the sharks or the snow or the fire. Or the drought.

Following the summer of 2017 I was hopeful, expecting a return to our normal seasonal weather pattern. But by early May of this year I began seeing signs that we were entering into another summer of drought. The weather was bad and the predictions worse. There were forecasts of drought. I reviewed my Drought Plan and began making a list of actions to take.

Fundamentally, successful drought planning involves only one major action: reduce stocking. In mid-May I canceled a delivery of custom grazing cattle. On June 1, I made plans to ship out our yearling cattle several weeks early. We began marketing every month, reducing our herd by 10 percent, then 25 percent, then 33 percent. We weaned calves early and sold off some pretty good cows. This week, as people are signing up for drought payments, we are selling off some more cattle. We still have some feed. It’s not great, but our remaining cattle will not starve.

I am determined and convinced of several things: we will survive this drought. We will adapt. We will manage. We will Perceive, Plan and Act. And we will not be applying for Disaster Relief payments.

Drought is a recurring (and apparently ever-more frequent) reality that ranchers need to deal with. And that means manage. Since we know with absolute certainty that another drought is coming (or that this current one is continuing), shouldn’t a smart manager devise a plan to deal with that reality? And in fact, isn’t that the fundamental job of a manager: to be watchful, to recognize changes in the world around us, to plan out how to overcome those dangers and then to take action?

In the face of future drought, it is the responsibility of every rancher and ranch manager to develop a Drought Management Plan to deal with that problem. Hoping and praying that things will simply get bad enough that the government will send a relief check is piss-poor management. From the government’s side, rewarding people for not making plans and taking actions is simply a terrible waste of taxpayer money, as it fails to really change anything. At best, it is a Band-Aid on a serious long-term problem. Not only that, paying subsidies to people for poor performance exacerbates the problems of agriculture by further distorting the value of agricultural land.

I realize that mine is a minority opinion, and perhaps a not very popular one. That’s fine. But I have to wonder what would happen if producers who are accepting drought payments would take a sliver of that cash and pay for a workshop or a consultant to help them design a functional Drought Management Plan.

Progress, I’d predict. Or perhaps the government could simply insist that drought payments be predicated on a significant reduction in livestock numbers. Something draconian, like 50 percent.

But better yet, I would ask the USDA to please just stop sending money.

John Marble manages a ranching operation in the Calapooia Valley of Linn County, Ore. His chief focus is on producing value through managed grazing.

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