(Tivy Valley, Calif.) – One by one, Harold Kelly’s family of horses crest the hill, kicking up dust. Their hooves tread over stones and packed dirt . It’s another mild, 70-degree day in central California. In the dead of winter, there’s not a cloud in sight. And there’s no rain in the forecast.
Fifty horses live on Kelly’s 300-acre pasture outside of Fresno, Calif., an area that is by and large the farming and agricultural hub of the Golden State. “Every horse out here, I’ve raised – but for the exception of two,” he says. He watches his herd sip from a water trough – a welcome oasis amid hills coated with brown soil. Usually, the land is lush and green. This year is different. The state is in the midst of a historic dry spell , one declared by California Gov. Jerry Brown as perhaps the worst drought in a century.
“Normally, it’d be raining and we’d have grass growing…the grass is basically all gone,” Kelly says. Simply put, there’s nothing left on the ground for the horses to eat.
It hasn’t rained in Tivy Valley since December 7, 2013. Even then, the area had only received .15inches of rain fall, according to Paul Jones, cooperative program manager at the National Weather Service. The rainfall total for 2013 was a scant 3.01 inches. An average year brings 11.5 inches of rain.
These circumstances have forced Kelly to find other ways to keep his horses alive. Every day, he fills his truck with hay purchased through a retailer, and drives into the dry pasture to feed his herd. He gives a loud whistle, and they come running.
“I borrowed money, I hate to even say that. But I recently borrowed money to buy hay,” he says. With hay prices on the rise due to the drought, Kelly spends $800-$1,000 a week on feed – money he doesn’t have. “I don’t really have much of a choice. That’s the way I look at it.”
“Some of them have dropped off a little bit in weight,” Kelly says, taking a look at a mare whose ribs are beginning to show. “They would be fat if there was rain.”
Central California thrives off the agriculture and livestock industry – fields of vegetables, fruits and tree crops are deteriorating rapidly. The state houses 80,500 farms and ranches, and generates more than $100 billion in economic activity, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. And on the front lines, farmers and ranchers like Kelly are facing heart-wrenching decisions. “There are a whole lot of people like me. Some of them are hurting worse than I am.”
For Kelly, there’s only one thing he can do. “I hate to get rid of them…but it’s time,” he says.
To this life-long horse trainer and rancher, horses aren’t just a business – it’s lifestyle and family. “Hey, little girl” he says to a chestnut mare who approaches his side. “It’s pretty hard… sometimes you don’t have any choice. You don’t have to be too smart to figure out this is what I need to do.”
“It’s on the verge of very desperate.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency for the state, calling for voluntary 20% conservation of water use statewide. In today’s State of the State address, Brown underlined the need to cut back. “Right now, it is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought. We need everyone in every part of the state to conserve water. We need regulators to rebalance water rules and enable voluntary transfers of water and we must prepare for forest fires,” Brown said.
The snowpack in the mountains are at 20% below normal levels. Reservoirs are at record lows and the major waterways are significantly reduced. “Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic. We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration,” he said.
Farmland residents are desperate for relief from the parched conditions.
Anthony Caglia runs Silver Wings Horse Rescue, dedicated to the rehabilitation and placement of orphaned horses. As Kelly’s neighbor and fellow horseman, he’s promised to do what he can to help, even as he struggles in the face of the drought.
His 60-acre equine ranch is at capacity with thoroughbreds, quarter horses and appaloosas up for adoption. Since the dry spell hit, calls for help have increased significantly. “Usually, we get a phone call 2-4 times a month….we’re getting them 2-3 times a week now. We’re at capacity, there’s a waiting list.” Like Kelly, he now purchases hay for the rescue horses, and relies on donations to keep his organization running.
“I’ve been in this area all my life, and I’ve never seen it this bad. It was just upon us so fast. Hopefully we can get some rain, get some pasture back in and get some people back to work. It’s on the verge of very desperate,” he says.
“The farmers don’t have anyone working. Nobody has money.” Caglia says. He ventures to say many people consider sending their horses to slaughter. “It’s money for them, they can’t get money otherwise. We like to let the horses live their lives out here. The founding of the ranch was to pay back the horse. The horse is what brought us here today. It took us across the United States, it brought our food in, it plowed our fields, it got us to town and back. It’s a payback to the horse.”
“In a month from now, I won’t have many left.”
Across the street, Kelly has as many as eight horses leaving for new homes in the coming weeks. They’ll be separated and trailered to different parts of the state, near and far. Equestrian Marcee Hansen is one of them. She’s taking a 3-month-old colt off Kelly’s hands to raise in her own.
But not everyone has good intentions. Potential buyers have offered money per pound for each horse, a tell-tale sign of intentions to send the horse to slaughter. “I’d rather borrow money, and feed the horses than see them go to slaughter…I’m not going to let them starve, whatever it takes,” he said.
He expects he’ll adopt-out every single one of his horses, but plays with the idea of keeping just one or two around for company. “I’ve gotten close to them. They become a little bit like kids,” he says. "They become like a person, like a friend you’re saying good bye to.”