Local farmers and ranchers are feeling the heat as Brazoria County enters a severe drought and swelters under record-breaking temperatures.

“We have a deep well and a high water table, but that doesn’t give the animals or plants relief from the sun,” said Cynthia Schaefer, executive director of Schaefer Farm in Brookside Village.

She said this year, the small farm has lost chickens and trees, and the garden stopped producing earlier than in prior years due to the heat.

On Aug. 20, the temperature in Houston reached 108 degrees, nearly breaking the city’s all-time-highest record of 109 degrees. It was the 22nd consecutive 100-degree day for the city, according to the National Weather Service.

Aside from being tough on crops and animals, which Schaefer relies on to sell produce, eggs, goat milk soap and honey at local farmers markets, the drought and high temperatures have made regular farm operations more difficult, she said.

“Even digging holes for posts involved a tractor, auger and lots of water to try to break through the dry clay,” Schaefer said.

The overview

The city of Pearland on Aug. 10 initiated Stage 1 of its drought contingency plan, which asks residents to adhere to a twice-per-week watering schedule. Pearland triggers the plan when daily water demand surpasses 60% of Pearland Water’s available system operating capacity for three consecutive days, Pearland Director of Utilities David Sohns said.

As drought conditions worsened, on Aug. 30, Pearland moved to Stage 2 of its drought contingency plan, which makes the watering schedules mandatory. Residents can be fined up to $2,000 for violating the restrictions.

Stage 2 can be initiated once the city’s total daily water demand equals or exceeds 70% of the current available system operating capacity for three consecutive days or by 75% for one day.

Neighboring Friendswood and Alvin have not initiated drought contingency plans; however, Friendswood began supplementing its surface water supply with its groundwater supply in early August due to dry weather and soil conditions.

On Aug. 10, Brazoria County issued a burn ban, prohibiting outdoor burning on unincorporated spaces due to the drought. •
Diving deeper

The Froberg family has been farming since 1896, when they provided fruits for jellies served to train passengers coming through Alvin. This year, the strawberry crop is being threatened.

“The last really good rain we got was Mother’s Day,” said Tyler Froberg, the owner of Froberg's Farm in Alvin. “After that, things started to heat up, and the moisture quit coming.”

Purple hull peas are one of Froberg Farm’s most important crops because Froberg uses the peas as a cover crop to fertilize the soil for planting other produce. By August, Froberg said he normally would have planted them once per month since the spring; however, with the drought, Froberg has planted them only once and lost the crop—a $10,000 revenue loss.

Normally, Froberg plants two rounds of the peas before planting the strawberries, but due to the dry soil, he’s only going to be able to plant one round.

While portions of Froberg Farm rely solely on rainwater, other sections have irrigation, but Froberg said the heat has not spared those crops, either, which include cucumbers, muscadine grapes, blackberries and Christmas trees.

Farmer Bill Groves, who owns a family farm in Alvin, said beginning last year, he has lost multiple animals due to the heat. To prepare for this summer’s heat, Groves built shade structures above his chicken and guineas coops and a wooden shade structure for his cows.

Zooming out

At least eight farms in the area provide produce, such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk and meat, to local customers.

While most area farmers rely on private wells, some smaller-scale farms, such as Red Pelican in Pearland, rely on city water.

Red Pelican farmer Torie Evans said her water bill jumped from $100 per month last growing season to $145 per month this year.

The takeaway

It’s tough to keep a vegetable garden during drought conditions, but for home gardeners or those thinking of planting a garden, Judith McGeary of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance gave these recommendations:
  • The key to holding moisture in the soil as much as possible and increasing drought tolerance in plants is organic matter in the soil. Gardeners can achieve this by composting or adding lots of layers of mulch.
  • Keep tillage to a minimum. Consider waiting until you are no longer in drought to plow or cultivate your garden so as not to disturb the soil and allow moisture to escape.
  • Consider reaching out to your local or state representatives to ask for an exemption from drought contingency mandates if you are growing food.
Conserving water is a team effort. The city of Pearland recommends residents do their part with these tips:
  • Double check for leaks; residents may be using more water than they are aware of.
  • Make sure sprinklers are tuned, and don’t run them outside of the schedule provided by the drought contingency plan.
  • Conserve water by turning off the faucet while brushing teeth or shaving.