Drought makes Utah farmers wary of the future

Three men stand on dry grasses in Garfield County, Utah. Utah farmers have been hit hard by drought conditions. (Photo courtesy of Marc Henrie)

Chris Riley always knew he wanted to be a farmer. It was in his blood. Both his father and grandfather had been produce farmers, and when the time came, he took over the family business.

Now, he’s worried about how his 200 acres of produce,located about 29 miles south of Provo, including tomatoes, pumpkins, apples and peppers, will be affected by the drought. Just like Riley, farmers across Utah have been worried about water, and about the future. 

Extreme drought conditions since March have hit Utah farmers hard, and they say the outlook for the future is worrisome after one of the hottest summers on record in Utah.

The drought conditions have caused some farmers to lose up to 60% of their allotted water, Riley said. 

“In this valley we’re blessed by Strawberry Reservoir, but it’s extremely low,” Riley said. “The ground’s so dry everywhere that you don’t have any other runoff because the ground’s just soaking it up instead of letting it run into reservoirs.”

According to a news release fromUtah Gov. Spencer Cox, farms are experiencing water cuts from 70%-75% across the state. Farmers are also experiencing a hay and alfalfa shortage, which means some are unable to afford feeding their animals. Ranchers and farmers are selling their animals and their land to do damage control, said produce farmer andboard member of the USDA Farm Service Agency Jake Harward.

“Farmers and ranchers come in and apply for assistance in years of fire, drought and flooding,” Harward said. “There’s programs where you can get zero interest loans.”

There is some federal funding available to help farmers during trying times like this, but many of these resources have been exhausted and the government offices can’t provide sufficient help, according to Western Governors.

“Its a little hard because you can’t just legislate more water,” said Matt Hargreaves, vice president of communications of the Utah Farm Bureau. “But the state has done a lot. The State Department of Agriculture have water optimization grants where they try to help farmers make the most efficient use of their water.”

And the recent storms haven’t helped as much as Utahns may have hoped. They temporarily nourish plants and will make spring-runoff next year more successful according to a report by the Utah Department of Natural Resources, but what will actually impact the drought conditions will be the snowpack this coming winter. 

According to a report by AccuWeather, this winter will be even “milder than normal.” With mild winters being what landed the West in a drought in the first place, AccuWeather predicts that the drought isn’t going to end any time soon, unless something unexpected occurs. 

In March, Cox announced a state of emergency, which expired Oct. 31 after the legislature did nothing to extend it, despite a request from the Department of Natural resources. According to Cox, this state of emergency allowed “drought-affected communities, agricultural producers and others to officially begin the process that may provide access to state or federal emergency resources.” 

Approximately 99.5% of the state is in severe drought, and 78.7% of the state in extreme drought. The lack of water has affected all 2.8 million Utahns, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

The drought hasn’t only been affecting Utah. Western states are experiencing extreme drought in various locations, and many places are even experiencing exceptional drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor. 

On Aug. 15, 2021, 10 Western state governors, including Utah’s governor, co-signed a letter calling on President Joe Biden to declare a Federal Emergency Management Agency drought disaster. The letter explains that without adequate help, the rural economies of the 10 states will likely take “years to recover.”

Utah has been doing some things to combat water waste. The state water conservation site has a campaign to “slow the flow” of sprinklers and other sources of unnecessary water usage. Suggestions include quickly fixing leaks, adding more mulch to gardens to retain water, avoiding over-watering lawns and gardens, weeding all of the weeds so the water goes to the wanted plants and more. 

While the government tries to prompt water conservation, farmers remain hardy and strong.

“Farmers are pretty resilient,” Harward said. “Farmers and ranchers figure out a way to make it work and weather the storm. This one’s a pretty tough one. But farmers and ranchers figure it out.” 

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