Todd and Ty Williams grew up on their family’s farm near Gruver, Texas, a town of about 1,100 people in the panhandle region. Todd Williams says he’s been driving a tractor since he was about seven years old, so it was just the natural course of events that he and his brother Ty would end up on the farm together as adults.
The brothers have been farming together since 1984. Williams notes that the main driver behind his desire to farm is his love for the work and the land, “because the money certainly isn’t in there,” he says. But above all else, he adds “there’s no better place on earth to raise your kids.”
The Williams brothers farm about 1,800 acres of wheat, corn, cotton and milo. Todd says that when he looks back at 2011, he remembers a year of unbelievable extremes. “Some people were flooded out in other parts of the country while we couldn’t buy a drop of water to save our lives.”
But farming and risk go hand in hand, and that’s why Williams purchases a crop insurance policy every year. “Wheat farming is so risky that using forward contracting as your only risk management tool is nearly impossible,” he says. That’s because if Mother Nature strikes and a crop is forward contracted without crop insurance, a farmer can end up owing a huge sum of money to fulfill the contract, on top of not having anything to harvest to provide income for the rest of the year.
Williams says he learned that lesson the hard way. He explained that a few years ago, he had a bumper wheat crop that was ready to harvest, so he worked through the day and on into the night, harvesting as much wheat as he could. He finally quit around 10 pm, with lots of wheat left standing in the field but exhausted from the long day’s work. Later that night, a large hailstorm blew through, crushing the remaining wheat. “One day it was ready to harvest, the next morning there was nothing taller that two inches in the whole field,” he said.
“Playing futures is risky, but contracting your wheat is an even bigger risk,” he notes.
Texas is a state that is not unfamiliar with droughts, heat waves, tornadoes and other weather anomalies. And because of that kind of weather, many Texas farmers are prepared to lose some of their crop on most years; but never all of it.
The drought of 2011 was so widespread and so extreme that even irrigated crops could hardly be saved. “It was so hot and dry, our irrigation pumps just wouldn’t cut it and our crops dried up,” Williams said.
Williams explained that he and other farmers were pulling so much water out of the local aquifer that they had to continually lower their pumps to keep the water coming.
The Williams brothers were running five irrigation wells and still couldn’t keep up with the heat and the lack of rain. “The crops just withered despite the irrigation,” Williams noted. “It was 110-112 degrees, the wind was blowing and the rain was nowhere to be found.”
Average rainfall for that part of the Texas panhandle is usually about 18-20 inches annually. In 2011, they received less than six inches for the whole year. Williams explained that when all was said and done, they were able to save a tiny portion of their crop by focusing irrigation on certain areas, but for the most part, “almost the entire crop was lost.”
Luckily his crop insurance agent, who Williams describes as “a super guy,” had touched base with the brothers throughout the year and knew that some degree of loss was inevitable. After months of fighting the drought and watching their crops wither despite their efforts, the Williams brothers came to the difficult decision that their fields were simply lost.
“The loss of a crop is crushing, even when you have crop insurance, because the insurance doesn’t really make you whole, it only helps you to recover to a small degree,” said Williams. He explained that like other farmers, he always looks forward to harvest, because it not only means the infusion of money, it’s the accomplishment of a year’s work. “I’d much rather have a harvest than an indemnity check,” he said.
But when disaster strikes and you lose some – or all – of your crop, farmers hope that the indemnity payment from their crop insurance policy is quick to arrive. Williams said that for him, that has always been the case. “Usually, the indemnity arrives in a week to 10 days,” he noted.
“If we didn’t have federal crop insurance last year, I’d be working at Wal-Mart or somewhere else today,” Williams said. “There is not a chance in the world I’d be farming today.” Williams said that because of his crop insurance policy, he and his brother are back farming today, and although it’s a bit dry, it’s a huge improvement over last year.
“Without federal crop insurance we’d be toast.”