The summer heatwave has hit Colorado with a vengeance. Just days into the new month, Denver hit a record 105 degrees. That day, it was hotter in Denver than it was in Chicago, Dallas and Tucson. But, that’s nothing. Just ask the folks in southeastern Colorado about heat. While you’re at it, ask them about drought. This year, they’re experts on both.
Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown gets right to the point on southeastern Colorado’s farmers and ranchers. “They’re in desperate shape,” he said. “If conditions don’t change,” his voice trailing off, “the crops are in peril.” That might even be optimistic.
Southeastern Colorado farmers and ranchers contribute greatly to the state’s annual $2 billion agriculture economy with alfalfa, beef, pork, grain, millet and wheat. But if the state is to reach that high water mark this year, it’s because other parts of the Colorado are picking up the slack. They’re not nearly as parched. “The dividing line is roughly I-70,” said the Commissioner. North of the state east-west interstate, moisture is running at normal seasonal levels.
North state reservoirs are in good shape, said Brown. But a lighter mountain runoff has not been kind to the southeastern part of the state. Reservoirs there are only half full, he said. That, compounded with paltry rainfall, has stunted cattle’s natural food source. “You don’t have native grass for the cattle (to graze on),” Brown said. Without that, ranchers are having to buy feed whose costs have soared just adding to the pain.
A lot of ranchers may be forced into a decision no one wants to make, Brown said. “Economically, you just have to sell the herd,” he said. Doing that can wipe out or significantly erase a generations of genetics. But drought and thinning the herd are on the surface of what some farmers and ranching are enduring. “It’s an emotional blow; almost as tough as the economic.”
Word gets around in the agriculture community, said Brown. Weather and market conditions in a year like this one---in Colorado and everywhere things have trended down for farmers and ranchers---have increased calls to the state’s crisis hotline, a line where depressed or suicidal callers turn to as a last resort. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2018 is showing a painful spike in suicide rates and farmers show the highest rates by a full thirty percent.
If nothing changes---and weather patterns do not indicate anything will---southern Colorado farmers and ranchers might stanch their losses through crop insurance. This last option, he said, “might allow you to break even.” Breaking even, a sad excuse for twelve months of planning and toiling, is the best many can hope for. The lucky ones might save a quarter of their investments. Some, said Brown, will get a crop yield of “just about zero.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s long range outlook is providing little reason for optimism. Its early July outlook reports that last fall’s precipitation “has just about left the ground.” This takes in an area that spans Crowley, western Kiowa, Bent and Las Animas counties. Streamflows in this region “are showing very low flows” and gauges that are flowing “are unrepresentative of actual river conditions.”
“You can read grandmother’s diaries from the twenties,” Brown said. “Nothing has changed.” But something has changed and you can thank the President. What’s changed are tariffs, a tax imposed on imports and exports. Canada, China and Mexico, all sure-fire trading partners with Colorado, are entertaining tariffs on Colorado exports including pork, beef, animal hides and more as the U.S. is entertaining tariffs on them.
“First of all,” said Commissioner Brown, “none has been implemented.” But, “we’re getting close to the trigger point.” Brown finds himself looking at an agricultural chess board and isn’t sure what the next move is. “We’re out of TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) and we can’t figure out NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). “Things need to be brought back into balance,” he added. “I question everyone being made at us.”
Farmers and ranchers are hoping that dialogue might address tariffs and trade. But the other side of the coin---weather---is just something you can complain about. No amount of talking will change it.