Weather is having its way with Wyoming farmers this year: an irrigation tunnel collapse in Goshen County, a late spring that meant fewer hay harvests and late plantings, and now early snows decimating crops.
According to the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, the unusual early snows that have beset Wyoming this year have done a number on late-season crops like sugar beets and dry beans.
“The snowstorm and other weather has put the kibosh on getting some of their crops harvested,” said Brett Moline, director of government affairs at the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service shows that sugar beet farmers, for instance, harvested 946,000 tons of their crop in 2018. This year, they brought in 838,000 tons, or an 11.4% decrease year over year.
In a pound-for-pound, dollar-for-dollar comparison to 2017, the most recent pricing data available, that could represent a loss of about $4 million for Wyoming farmers.
Many crops went in the ground later than usual because of a cold spring, making them even more vulnerable to a clipped summer season requiring an early harvest.
Moline said his boss was in Park County in late October and heard firsthand of the difficulties in that area.
“There’s really nothing you can do about it,” he said. “If the weather warms up, they can get the beets out. In a month or two weeks, we’ll probably know a lot more.”
Instead, farmers are just hoping the snow that came in with the cold will be a good enough insulator to keep their underground crops from freezing, making them at least partially salvageable.
“It’s kind of a hurry up and wait deal,” Moline said. For the farmers’ sake, Moline and company at the Farm Bureau Federation are hoping that Wyoming farmers bought crop insurance this year so they at least have some return if their crops are a total loss. But many farmers heap the risk on themselves, being unwilling to part with potential profit if weather is good to them.
“My members are the most optimistic pessimists or the most pessimistic optimists I’ve ever seen,” Moline said. “The general mood is a little bit pessimistic, with prices and the weather, but we’ll see.”
If weather doesn’t cooperate, the farmers’ best asset – their crops – become a liability for next year’s planting. If they winter underground, the crops will just get in the way come planting time and push a delay of game for farmers anxious to get their next paycheck in the ground.
Aren’t farmers supposed to like snow?
For winter 2019-20, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a cold, snowy winter with “a parade of snowstorms” that will create “snowy, icy and icky” weather across the region.
Last year, according to a release, the Farmer’s Almanac was roughly 80.5% accurate in predicting the long-term weather.
So far, its prediction for this year seems to be panning out, with the early snows that have skiers waxing their skis in preparation for big dumps. At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, for instance, the mountain had already recorded 41 inches of snow as of Oct. 30. They don’t open until Nov. 28.
Yet traditional wisdom has it that farmers like snow. More snowpack? More water, better crop yields. Less imported hay for cattlemen. The list goes on.
But this year’s weather is “too much, too soon.”
“The snowpack is important for the irrigation water, but we won’t need irrigation water until next spring,” Moline said. “You never cuss moisture; you just wish it’d come when you wanted or needed it.”
Still, Moline said he’s hoping the Almanac’s predictions for a snowy year will hit the mountains and leave the valleys free for cattle to graze.
While farmers soldier through the worst nature can throw at them, some of this year’s craziness has caused serious problems.
In Goshen County, an irrigation tunnel finished more than 100 years ago finally gave up the ghost on July 17. The collapse left 107,000 acres of crops in Wyoming and Nebraska without irrigation water for about six weeks, throwing them to the mercy of the weather even more than normal.
While a cool summer season allowed the crops to grow anyway, to a certain extent, the 52,000 acres on the Wyoming side Moline described as “marginal, at best.” That’s about 1 in 3 acres of cropland in the agrarian North Platte River Valley.
The collapse didn’t completely stymie crops, but it did cause its fair share of problems. Research from the University of Wyoming and the University of Nebraska pegged estimated losses at $89 million if corn, dry beans and sugar beets were a total loss, and alfalfa fields lost a third of their production.
But the cooler-than-normal summer, with “timely” precipitation, allowed the fields to look “better than expected.” One bean field yielded 18 bushels per acre, compared to a normal yield of 45 to 50 bushels per acre.
Though harvesting a third of a crop is better than nothing, Nebraska Extension Regional Economist Jessica Groskopf said the shockwaves from the collapse will be felt on main streets, as well as in the fields.
Dry bean yields in the area, explained University of Nebraska Extension Educator Gary Stone, also took a major hit.
“Previous average yields were about 2,400 to 2,800 pounds per acre,” he wrote in a blog post. “This season’s yields are 1,600 to 2,000 pounds per acre.”
And those kinds of losses don’t stay put in the field.
“It is important for our communities to understand the hardships our farmers are facing and realize the loss of these crops will ripple through our economy,” she said in a UW news release.
Fundraisers for the affected farmers sprung up in both states. And state and federal governments stepped in to ensure that suicide prevention resources were in place, along with disaster relief for the crisis. For farmers with insurance, the USDA Risk Management Agency determined that the tunnel collapse was an insurable event.
Agriculture in Wyoming is the No. 3 industry behind energy and tourism. And beans and beets are only a small part of the ag scene in the state. The most visible and prominent ag industry, of course, revolves around cattle and sheep herds.
“The bitter cold we’re experiencing now is unusual,” said Moline of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation. “I hope it’s not a harbinger of what’s to come for the rest of the winter.”
That could be disastrous for the state’s “crop” of herds. When snow blankets the valley floor, ranchers have to supplement more with hay since cattle or sheep can no longer effectively get to the grass hidden beneath the snow and ice.
“Everything’s a crap shoot,” Moline said.
So the conventional wisdom that all snow is good news for ranchers can be thrown out the barn window. However, that’s not to say there’s no optimism in the state’s cattle industry. Nationwide, Moline said, it seems that herds have hit their high point, leaving cattle prices to stand “solid.”
And Japan is buying up more high-quality beef – a Wyoming specialty. And developing new markets takes some of the supply out of the American system, meaning ranchers’ prices can inch upward.
“We tend to produce some of the best beef cattle in the nation,” Moline said. “Hopefully we’ll be in higher demand, which should bump up our prices a little bit. It’s not huge, but at least it’s something.”
Still, the price of production keeps creeping higher, cutting the profitability of businesses with already slim margins. On the flip side, Moline said many ranchers are grateful that the USDA backed off plans to require all cattle to be tagged electronically for interstate shipments.
And behind everything, the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation is dealing with the wakeup call of the collapsed irrigation tunnel that caused so many problems and trying to prevent the next. Especially with “fickle” weather on the prowl.
“Given the low profitability of agriculture,” he said, “it’s hard to save up money for infrastructure improvements. What can we do to help the farmers and ranchers to help the rest of the state of Wyoming?”