Vicky Gonzales arrived in this small Texas farming town at the end of June with her four children and grandson, part of the annual migration of farm workers from the Rio Grande Valley to the plains of the Texas Panhandle.
In a normal year, several of her children would have found work hoeing weeds between the rows of cotton or harvesting onions. It is difficult work for low wages, but it pays the weekly rent of $65 for part of a dilapidated frame house without a refrigerator and hot water--and enough to save a little as well.
In normal times, the plains of Texas would now be knee-high with blooming cotton and the fields would be filled with migrant workers. But a series of severe hailstorms, coupled with continual rain and crop disease in June, have devastated the cotton and onion crops here, plunging already hard-pressed farmers into deep financial trouble and depriving migrant workers of jobs.
As a result, Gonzales has not paid her landlord for more than a week and is growing pessimistic. "There is a possibility of work tomorrow for my children," she said without emotion the other day as she juggled bottles of baby food and fanned the air with a cloth to keep the flies away from her infant grandson.
A cycle of drought and flooding have hurt crops every year since 1978, but Lubbock cotton farmer Gale Ballard says, "I've farmed in this county for 54 years and I've never seen anything" like this year.
Of nearly 5 million cotton acres in the region, almost 2 million have been abandoned, according to estimates by the Department of Agriculture, and only half of the usual crop or less is growing on another 2 million acres. Some fields have been planted three times this year to get one crop.
After considerable pressure from area politicians, including several Boll Weevils on Capitol Hill who called in their chits for supporting President Reagan's tax and budget programs last year, the Agriculture Department two weeks ago approved an estimated $350 million in disaster payments for farmers in 76 counties in Texas, Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico.
But the payments may cover only a portion of the expenses the farmers already had poured into their operations this year. And there is no good estimate of how many migrant workers have been affected. Motivation Education & Training, Inc., a federally funded program to aid migrant workers, estimates that the damage to the vegetable crops may affect 8,000 jobs in this region.
In the first three weeks of July, MET provided $39,000 to about 500 migrant families, offering them money for rent, for gasoline to help them to return to the Rio Grande Valley or for food, according to Irene Bocanegra.
The money for rent and gasoline, provided under a section of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, has now run out, although about $11,000 remains for food.
"Every politician has jumped on the bandwagon to call for aid to the farmers, but not many people are calling for aid to the farmworkers, who have been equally devastated," said William Beardall of the Texas Rural Legal Aid in Hereford, Tex., which is helping to dispense the money.
Early this spring, farmers were moving along normally. "We planted it and had it up and pretty," said Eugene Bednarz.
Then came June, bringing rain, hail, cool weather and diseases. On June 18 a devastating hailstorm ripped through the area, shearing leaves off of trees, uplifting old cedars, damaging cars and wiping out thousands of acres of cotton.
Hailstorms are common here, but rarely have they covered such a wide area. And those farmers who escaped the hail damage have seen their crops die from too much rain or disease.
"I've been farming 35 years and this is the first year we've had close to a total failure," said Clarence Kitten. One of the fields he attempted to save is now mostly a patch of red-colored dirt, interspersed with anemic cotton plants.
As a result of the damage this year, many farmers fear financial ruin. At least 70 percent of the Farmers Home Administration loans in the area are delinquent in their payments, according to FmHA estimates. FmHA provides loans to farmers who cannot get credit from the banks.
Even farmers with good credit are in trouble. "We do business with about 150 farmers," said J.B. Potts of Lubbock National Bank. "About 50 percent of those boys have problems."
Many farmers dip into savings to stay in business. Melba Thompson Jr., who farms 2,400 acres of cotton, was forced last year to dip into $30,000 in savings he had set aside for retirement. He fears he may have to do the same thing this year.
"There's not many more times I can do that," he said.
The migrant workers are living, as they do even in good years, in substandard housing, crowding whole families of seven or eight people into hot quarters of about 10 feet by 12 feet.
Many of them sleep on cement floors; others sleep on box springs covered with cardboard. They share bathrooms with many other families.
Some have found work de-tasseling grain sorghum, but others say they are working only a few hours a day in the onion fields, earning 55 cents for each 100-pound sack they can fill.
Maria Escobar was sitting on a car outside her quarters at the federal migrant labor camp here one afternoon last week. She had been in Plainview several weeks and said there was little work for her this year.
Asked if she wanted to return to the Rio Grande Valley, she said, "Yes, but we're broke. We have to work a little to get back. If it keeps up like this, we'd better go home."
Many farmers have given up trying to replant cotton and have turned to grain sorghum, although it is mostly to have something on their fields to prevent erosion. Otherwise, they are simply trying to survive until next year.
"It's a question of how far you want to go before just dropping out," said farmer Billy Jones. CAPTION: Picture, Vicky Gonzales shoos flies off her grandson, lying on mattress on floor of her rundown, $65-a-week rental house. By Dan Balz--The Washington Post