Utah farmers will survive dry weather, for now

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Clyde Bunker arrived home after doing what he calls “dirt work” on his farms.

It’s a routine task that entails plowing corn stalks and grain stubble into the soil. The process, which is usually done in the early spring, gives the land the nutrients it needs to produce the years’ crop.

The problem is that he did it in the middle of January, when the ground would normally be too frozen to perform such a task.

“Weather concerns us every day,” said Bunker, a 60-year-old grain farmer in Delta. “There’s not a thing you can do about it.”

While experiencing one of the driest water seasons on record, farmers worry they won’t achieve their normal yield.

[pullquote]“Weather concerns us every day,” said Bunker, a 60-year-old grain farmer in Delta. “There’s not a thing you can do about it.”[/pullquote]

Consumers worry that food prices will continue rising.

“You would expect to see some prices jump,” said Matt Palmer of the Sanpete County Agriculture Extension. “But Utah is not one of the large agriculture producing states.”

The good news for Utah consumers is that the price of fruits and vegetables won’t likely be affected this year because of local reservoir storage.

California, on the other hand, is one of the largest agriculture producing states, and has been experiencing dry weather patterns similar to Utah’s. As a whole, food prices on the national level could rise this year as a result of the lack of precipitation, Palmer said.

“There’s a couple of silver linings to this cloud,” said Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau. “The first one is that last year we had a tremendous snowpack and we had the ability to put a lot of water in our reservoirs. We also went into the fall with a very healthy soil moisture profile which means our soils were in good shape as far as the water moisture they were holding going into the winter.”

This year’s dry spell comes at the heels of Utah’s wettest year on record. Last year’s snow pack and rainfall helped fill every reservoir in the state, raise Bear Lake by 11 feet, replenish Lake Powell and recharge the ground water.

Fortunately for Bunker, the lack of precipitation won’t likely affect his normal annual harvest of four crops of alfalfa, because he has water storage rights to a nearby reservoir.

Storage rights or not, the unusually dry weather still concerns most in the agriculture business.

Dry seasons aren’t uncommon in the state. Throughout the last 30 years, Utah’s climate has cycled through dry and wet periods, according to Brian McInerney, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service.

“It just seems kind of odd that we’re jumping from one extreme to another,” McInerney said.

While the extreme dry conditions won’t impact most farmers in the short term, it may have a more significant impact on the long term.

“A big part of this overall puzzle is how much water we have in overall storage,” said Randy Julander, a snowpack expert for the National Resources Conservation Services. “Think of it as our snowpack is our cash flow and our reservoir storage is what we have in savings. A combination of the two determines how far you go in any given year. So what we have is a lot of savings and very little cash flow in this particular year.”

Which is why Bunker, a lifetime farmer, hasn’t worried much about how his crops will fare this year. However, he does worry about 2013.

“Next year, if things don’t change, things will be a whole lot different,” he said. “You’re going to hit the two ends of the spectrum in a three-year period here.”

For Bunker, the water supply this year is much like taking a stingy pay-cut while having more in the bank than ever before. But without that regular “cash flow” or consistent run off, his “savings” in reservoir storage has dismal potential.

Without that consistent run off that farmers desperately want, it can end up hurting their wallets.

“We just adjust,” Bunker said. “There’s not anything else you do. You just adjust. You can lose money, which is what it amounts to when you don’t have a crop to sell. You just adjust.”

Farmers in some areas, such as northern Sanpete County, will face a much tougher adjustment than others because of their lack of access to reservoir storage.

“They just get what comes off from the snowpack, which at this point doesn’t look very promising,” said John Keeler, southern regional manager of the Utah Farm Bureau. “They could be in trouble.”

While Utah grain farmers harvest about three to four crops in an average year, Keeler predicts some Sanpete farmers will harvest no more than two crops this year.

“[Those] famers right now that are looking at it, if they’re on a river or stream, and it dries up in May or by the first of June, they could lose 50 percent or better [of their income],” Bunker said.

This means that for the 85 percent of Utah farmers that earn an average of $50,000 or less per year, that would likely result in five-digit loses in their income.

Bunker may be in a similar situation if conditions don’t improve next year. Even though he has worked through disappointingly dry seasons in his 40-plus years of experience as a farmer, including 1977 – the driest year on record – the future is as unpredictable as ever.

Hydrologist Brian McInerney suggested the stark difference between wet and dry in the last two years may indicate that climate change is a factor in what may turn into a debacle for farmers that don’t have storage rights.

“We have had dry and wet periods before. Just not at this magnitude. It does follow what you would think with climate change. Something to consider though is the research that’s been done to this point indicates that we’ll have more intense storms and we’ll have longer prolonged periods of drought,” McInerney  said. “Now whether this was caused by climate change remains to be seen.”

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