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Amid drought, wine grapes save a cotton farmer

(CBS News) MEADOW, Texas - Out on the plains of the western part of the Texas panhandle, farmers face a stark choice as drought consumes their famous cotton crops: diversify or suffer.

To visit the Bingham family farm, in one of the remotest parts of the panhandle, "you have to use your odometer," according to Cliff Bingham. And he's right. Dirt County Road 250 (as opposed to the paved one - there's one of those, too) is exactly one mile past the only two-lane road for 20 miles, and if you miss it, you could wait 20 minutes for a car to come along so you can ask for directions. Thankfully folks here don't think twice about strangers standing in the middle of the road flagging them down for assistance.

Travel two more miles along the dusty, bumpy road and you begin to see how good cotton has been to the Binghams over the last 100 years. Their house which sits up on the only rise for hundreds of miles is big, which is a good thing because they have 11 children, from 9 years old up to 28, all home-schooled.

But for the second year in a row, the family's cotton crop has been hit hard by drought. Texas is the largest cotton exporter in the world and two-thirds of it is grown on Lubbock's high plains. Everywhere you look it's a sea of cotton. The Binghams alone have 2,000 acres. They call it white gold, but this year, it's once again more like tin foil. Even with irrigation from the dwindling Ogallala aquifer, analysts say one-third of the cotton crop in Texas will be abandoned this year.

When Bingham bounds up the gravel drive to shake our hands, he's got a wide smile that seems etched into his cheeks by the ever present winds of the plains, and a twinkle in his eye.

"Right in the midst of the drought, we're going to be doing pretty good this year," he beams as we survey his weak cotton crop. How? Just few feet away, in the shadow of a rusty cotton gin, are Bingham's thriving vineyards of Cab Franc grapes.

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"We've got the quality, and the quantity is looking very good. It will be the best crop that Texas has ever seen," he boasts. There are more than 2,500 acres of grapes in Texas, and Bingham owns 215 of them. The wine industry has an estimated $2 billion economic impact on the state.

Eight years ago, Bingham saw that the dwindling Ogallala aquifer was becoming a bigger problem.

"The amount of water we'll have will be less and less as time goes by, so we started thinking what crop could make us more money per acre."

He chose wine grapes: Tempranillo, Grenache, Montepucliano, Roussanne, Gawurtzraminer. He's found that with grapes, he makes 10 times the profit with the same amount of water. So now all his water goes to grapes, and his cotton is left to Mother Nature. The secret to surviving severe drought, he said, is diversifying into a high yield niche market.

But not everyone has the wherewithal to do that.

"It's all burnt up," said father of two and second-generation cotton farmer Jason Coleman, while casting weary eyes over his withering cotton in the golden light of a sunset on the plains.

"We had just enough rainfall early on to give us a bit of hope. Since that time, to have watched it burn up and cut out and see it as it is today, it's disappointing. It's an overriding sense of, 'Here we go again,'" Coleman lamented.

For Coleman and many others, grapes are not an option because the start-up cost is too great. It can costs as much as $10,000 per acre, and it can take as long as five years to become productive after the switch, so he's sticking with cotton, and plans to "keep praying for rain and try to cover risk as much as you can with insurance."

Bending down to touch the white flowers on top of the scrawny plants, Coleman said, "they have waived the white flag of surrender. They are done, it's finished."

Back at the Bingham house, a small battalion of Binghams open a few bottles of wine as they prepare dinner. Cliff Bingham proudly shows off the "Bingham Family Farms" on the label of his award-wining wines.

"We just won a gold at the San Francisco international wine festival," he said, proud to have beat out a few Napa wineries.

Bingham used his savings to diversify into wine and now he is able to attract investors from the "fancy" big cities of Texas who want to get into the business. He said he jokes with them: "I live here to grow the grapes so you don't have to."

As the family sits down to dinner at a very long table with glasses full of their own Viognet, he starts to say grace: "God Bless the harvest."

They all bow their heads, slight smiles spreading across their faces. The children want to keep farming in this part of west Texas, and they believe grapes are their future.

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