In 2011, Eric Herm's cantaloupes exploded.
A fourth-generation cotton farmer in West Texas, Herm was experimenting with a home garden to help feed his family during the onset of a drought in the area. Blistering heat, including 100-degree days as early as May, was wilting Herm's cotton — and in the end, it turned his melons into pressure cookers.
Most of Herm's neighbors have lost their cotton crop the last three of four growing seasons — part of the most severe regional drought in more than 50 years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 temperatures in the United States were the hottest in recorded history. And a May 2013 report by the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate concluded that "human-induced climate change" played a statistically significant role in the record-breaking temperatures of 2011, adding that the period from October 2010 to September 2011 "was Texas's driest 12-month period on record."
With the exception of scattered irrigation, most farmers in West Texas practice "dryland" farming, meaning they're entirely dependent on rain. Rainfall on Herm's acreage had previously averaged 17 inches a year, but in 2011 and 2012 the annual averages were three and eight inches, he said. Even the driest years of the Dust Bowl, which lasted off and on from 1930 to 1940, brought about nine to 14 inches of rain to Herm's region, according to Natalie Umphlett of the Nebraska-based High Plains Regional Climate Center.
"In the back of my mind I'm wondering, 'Where do I go if things get that bad?'" Herm said back in May, while planting for the 2013 growing season. "If we do not make a crop this year, I'm going to have to a real serious look at [the] future."