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Utah farmers’ profits are shriveling like their crops

SHARE Utah farmers’ profits are shriveling like their crops

Profits are drying up about as fast as the alfalfa and meadow hay in Summit County where farmers haven't had a good rain since May, and some farmers and ranchers might have to sell off livestock because they can't afford to buy feed.

Doc Woolstenhulme, a farmer and schoolteacher, who raises about 300 acres of alfalfa and meadow hay, said the area around Oakley in Summit County has been particularly hard hit.

Trouble first arrived with little winter snow, then some late spring frosts that extended the growing season. After that, when plants took root and began to grow, the water began to dwindle.

"Usually when we've had a light winter, we've had some rain in the summer. We don't get very much up here, but usually it's enough to get us through," he said. "This year, we haven't had any rain since May. We've had a sprinkle or two, but it wasn't enough to settle the dust."

He has about half the alfalfa he would normally harvest and half or less of the meadow hay. "It's not just me, but most of the farmers around." Only a few, whose land is geographically protected from the frost, have done reasonably well.

Some Summit County residents say this is the driest summer they've seen in 20 years.

Bill Alder, meteorologist in charge of the Salt Lake office of the National Weather Service, is reluctant to make that claim. "Definitely we've had a dry summer, but whether it's the worst in 20 years, it's hard to say. The summer of 1994 was very hot, but whether it was as dry as this one, it's hard to say."

Nonetheless, Alder appreciates the farmers' plight this year. "When we get any moisture, we don't get much out of it, and it doesn't last very long. Another thing that didn't help us was that the winter snow pack was below normal, and we had an early melt."

Statistics from his office show that weather stations in the northern mountains area that includes such places as Heber, Morgan, Scofield, Silver Lake and Woodruff have consistently shown deficits of 4 inches and 5 inches or more during this "water year," which runs from October to October.

Precipitation measurements taken at the Salt Lake City International Airport show a deficit of 3.71 inches less than what it should be at this time.

Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said some crops do better when it is hot and dry because those conditions accelerate growth.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the week ending Aug. 13 show that winter wheat was 83 percent harvested, which is ahead of last year at this time by 18 percent. Spring wheat harvested was 63 percent, also ahead of last year. Corn height was 83 inches, which is five inches taller than last summer.

Tart cherries also did well: They were 94 percent harvested and "we're a large tart cherry-producing state," Lewis said.

Still, that's small comfort to anyone who has harvested alfalfa.

Farmers usually can harvest two crops of alfalfa in one season. Woolstenhulme said the first alfalfa harvest was "fairly good," but the second was good only as long as the water lasted. Some farmers harvested the second crop early to get what they could. "They would have gotten better, but they ran out of water. If they had water, they could have gotten a little more growth out of it."

Jared Weller, a recreation and implement dealer in Marion, which is just outside Kamas, said he's heard the same story from many farmers.

"It has been at least 20 years since I've seen something like this in this valley. I can't remember when we've had this much drought," Weller said. He predicts some farmers might have to sell off cattle, because it would be too expensive to buy hay to feed them.

Lewis notes that alfalfa is a major agricultural crop in Utah and is "very important" to the livestock and dairy industries.

"Utah's alfalfa has a national reputation for its high quality," Lewis said. "It has high protein, which helps dairy cows produce more milk. It's also beneficial for horses and beef cattle."

Last year, Utah's farmers harvested about a half-million acres of alfalfa and produced more than 2.3 million tons.

Utah was ranked 13th in the nation as far as alfalfa production in 1999. "Florida has its oranges; Washington state has its apples, and Utah has alfalfa," Lewis said.

In wetter years, some alfalfa from the southern part of the state is sold to farmers in Nevada and especially Southern California for its massive dairy industry. But Utah farmers might need to hang on to whatever they've harvested for their own herds this year.

"The price is going up because of scarcity; it's going up to about $100 a ton," he said. The weather conditions and low supplies have combined to create a high demand and also high prices for Utah's sought-after alfalfa.

E-MAIL: lindat@desnews.com