Drought takes personal toll as Utah farmers lose money, land and cattle

Suicide is a risk for farmers who have seen yields drop in a dry year, they say.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pivot in an alfalfa field left dry due to drought conditions in Centerfield on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

St. George • Rows of farmers and ranchers in rural Sanpete County are familiar with the late J. Golden Kimball, the “swearin’ elder,” who said “always marry a woman from Sanpete County. No matter what hard times you experience together, she has seen worse.”But Wade and Tina Eliason, who are from Sanpete and have been married for 27 years, said they’ve never seen a drought as severe as the one that’s parched their 700-acre farm in Moroni this year.

“We received about 20% of the water we normally get and produced about 20% of the alfalfa and other feed we normally harvest,” said Wade Eliason, who estimates the monetary value of his crop loss at $300,000 or more.

Eliason can find small consolation that he is not alone. Based on anecdotal evidence, state agriculture officials estimate crop yields are down 20% in much of Utah.

The drought has dried up rivers and drained reservoirs over the past year, hammering farmers across Utah.

For farmers, as well as the state as a whole, the stakes brought on by a lack of rain and snow are high. Agriculture in Utah is a $1.8 billion industry responsible for 2.3% of the state’s gross domestic product, more than 25,000 jobs and more than $320 million in wages. There are 18,400 farms encompassing 10.8 million acres in Utah.

While the final numbers for Utah’s harvest this year won’t be known for weeks, the few numbers that have come in paint a bleak picture.

Winter wheat production in 2021, estimated at 4.51 million bushels, is down 13%, or 7 bushels per acre from the previous year. Barley production, estimated at 729,000 bushels, has dropped 29% and is now the lowest it has been since 1926, according to numbers compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

All told, the U.S. Drought Monitor warns that all of Utah is at least in “severe drought,” with most of the state either still in “extreme” or “exceptional drought.” Moreover, reservoirs at the end of September were at 47 capacity statewide, compared with 67 percent at this time last year.

Although the Beehive State is dangerously dry right now, it’s not uncommon for Utahns to live with some amount of drought. Utah is the second driest state in the nation, with only Nevada receiving less perception.

“What makes this drought so different is how widespread it is. It is all over the West,” said Matt Hargreaves, the Utah Farm Bureau’s vice president of communications. “So farmers’ water allotments have been cut and they have had to decide what they were going to water and what they were going to let die.”

Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson believes the state’s agriculture industry is at a critical juncture. If farming and ranching are to remain viable, he said Utahns must decide what the future looks like when it comes to water, agriculture and food security and come up with a long-term plan just like the state does with roads.

“If we want to have enough water and a safe local food supply, then we need to start making some investments in agriculture infrastructure,” Gibson said. “It’s impossible for us to have the state’s population double and not invest in water infrastructure. The current situation is not sustainable.”

“California has proven that to us time and again,” he added. “If we want to be like California, we’re headed down that path. If we want to be something different, now is the time to make that decision.”

First in time, first in right

Water allotments during the season were cut by as much as 75% in many areas of the state. The amount cut varied based on how much moisture river drainages received and what kind of water right was held.

The Utah Division of Water Rights follows the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, which is often referred to as the “first in time, first in right.” Those with the oldest existing water rights — be they individuals, cities or irrigation companies — get their allotment first and the remainder goes to those with more recent water rights.

Many of the most senior rights are owned by irrigation companies, which in turn sell shares to individual farmers or stakeholders.

Few got as much water they needed in 2021.

“Water rights were cut drastically this year due to the limited supply or lack of natural flow within systems,” state Water Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen said. “We cut down through the priorities, the junior rights getting cut first with the senior rights receiving most of the water. But even some senior rights definitely got cut.”

If this water year, which started at the beginning of October, is as bad as last, Wilhelmson said the farmers or companies with junior rights might not get any water.

Water woes have hit Utah Farm Bureau’s Ron Gibson, a fifth-generation dairyman affectionately known as the “Milkman,” who farms 2,000 acres in Weber and Davis Counties.” He typically grows corn, alfalfa and barley on the dairy portion of his farm and onions, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, watermelon, squash, sweet corn on his produce farm.

This year has been anything but typical.

Despite drawing water from the Weber River and seven canal companies, the water from all his sources was cut by about 70%. Nonetheless, he counts himself lucky.

“A lot of producers in the state … got 5%, some got 10%, and some got 20%. Everybody got cut, even in the northern part of Cache Valley where they never got cut,” said Gibson, who balances his farm chores with his duties as president of the Utah Farm Bureau.

Gibson had to let 200 acres of his land go fallow this year. Like other food producers throughout Utah, he also had to prioritize and make some tough decisions about what and where to water. Despite his best efforts, his corn and alfalfa crops took a major hit.

There were some relative oases in Utah’s drought-parched landscapes. Late rains in August and early September enabled fruit growers in Utah County and Box Elder counties to get enough water to yield a full crop of cherries, apples and peaches.

Contrary to news reports that the heavy rains came too late to help, the storms kept the water flowing and set up growers for a good start for the upcoming season.

“Those rains helped so much that it is hard to quantify it,” said Curtis Rowley, who runs Cherry Hills Farms with five brothers in south Utah County. “We now have enough to last until the end of the year and can be used for next year. That is huge.”

Not only were water flows lower than normal, but they were also shut off earlier in many areas.

For the most part, Newton resident ValJay Rigby is a dry farmer, meaning he is totally reliant on Mother Nature to provide enough moisture to grow crops. He dry farms 1,300 acres and has access to irrigation water on another 300 acres on his land in Cache County.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) An agricultural field near Ephraim, photographed Sept. 24, 2021, is completely dry at a time of year when Utah farmers are normally harvesting a third cutting of alfalfa. This year’s drought has been extremely hard on some producers resulting in the highest alfalfa prices on record.

Water to the irrigated portion of his land was cut off in early September instead of October. As a result, his hay crop dropped precipitously, his safflower crop was cut in half and his wheat crop was nonexistent.

“We had a couple of acres of winter wheat that we didn’t even harvest,” he said. “We had all the expense of putting fertilizer and seed out, but we had zero return. It was a big loss.”

Rigby, who holds a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in computer information systems from Utah State University, estimates he is out $150,000. He is now planting winter wheat but is struggling to calculate how he can cover the cost of fertilizer, which has gone up as much as 75%.

It’s a puzzle that his finance degree hasn’t helped him solve.

“They didn’t teach me how to make money from nothing,” Rigby laughed.

Taking a personal toll

Drought also wreaked havoc on mountain pastures where many ranchers graze their cattle during the summer, and many of the high country wells they rely on to water their sheep or cows ran dry. The lack of natural feed on public rangelands forced many ranchers to bring their livestock home weeks or even months earlier than normal.

Once their livestock were back on the farm, many producers were faced with using what little alfalfa they were able to grow on their land to get their livestock through the winter instead of selling it. Ranchers who are reliant on rangeland forage and don’t grow or have enough of their own alfalfa to feed their cattle have been required to buy hay on the open market, where soaring hay prices are drowning many of them in debt.

“Last year we were paying between $130 and $150 a ton for feeder hay,” said Kane County rancher Dustin Cox, who runs 80 head of cattle on the Arizona Strip. “This year we paid $250. So we paid $100 to $120 more per ton.”

Most years, Cox and his wife Harmony also run a brokerage that sells hay to dairy farmers, but their suppliers produced about a third of their normal harvest, making their services useless this year.

To supplement their income, they rent out Airbnbs in Orderville, along scenic Highway 89. That’s not enough to offset what they have lost, requiring them to sell 10% of their cattle. He said other ranchers in the area have sold 80% of their herd.

“You sell cows and you get $400 for them because everyone is flooding the market with cows,” Cox said. “When you buy those back when the market is good, you’ll be paying $1,800 for a pregnant cow. So you have a $1,200 loss there.”

In Gunnison, where Stan Jensen farms 500 acres and owns 60 cows, the outlook is even more dire. He has lost 85% of his crop, nearly all of his operating capital and estimates his earnings are down $200,000. An optimist by nature, he is still hoping against hope for a big win by year’s end.

“I hope to be flat broke because that would mean I have enough to pay all my bills and not end the year in debt,” he said, adding he probably will have to go deep into debt to keep farming next year.

To help meet that goal, Jensen plans to butcher some of his cows and sell the meat.

Rigby, the Cache County dry farmer, has already sold some of his cows and plans to sell even more because he can’t afford to feed them. Another unpleasant option he is considering is to sell some of his land.

“That would be the worst-case scenario for us. We don’t like to even think about that,” he added.

Rigby’s wife Raelyn is a public health nurse. While he struggles to find ways to keep the farm afloat, she is dealing with the demands of the coronavirus crisis on a daily basis.

“Between the drought and COVID, it’s been a really hard year for our family all the way around,” he said. “The anxiety when you have a drought like this is you just don’t have any control over the situation. No matter how hard you work, you can’t make a difference.”

Wade Eliason, the sheep rancher in Sanpete County, said his talks with fellow farmers and ranchers has turned to the risk of suicide on occasion. He said they have discussed the need to pay closer attention to those who are struggling to avoid losing anyone.

Utah Farm Bureau President Ron Gibson said the mental health aspect of the drought is often overlooked.

“These family farms have been here for several generations,” he explained. “The stress farmers deal with trying to find a way to make a living while getting the same money for their crops that their ancestors did is crazy. I can’t imagine any other industry doing what we do in the agriculture business.”

Another aspect of the drought Utah farmers and ranchers say is too often brushed aside is water conservation. They bristle at critics who suggest farmers are wasting water or not doing their fair share to conserve it.

Gibson notes that many farmers are installing special irrigation sprinklers that save water by bringing it closer to the ground. He has installed drip lines on much of his land, reducing his water usage to about half of the total that would be required for flood irrigation. Fruit farmers in Utah County have also installed these drip irrigation and are testing soil moisture levels to put the right amount of water precisely where it is needed.

In Millard County, Intermountain Farmers Association branch manager Jared Buhler has spent $3,000 to use a laser coupled with a leveler to ensure water on his farm is not wasted and is spread evenly across his land. He said other farmers in the Delta area are following suit.

Still, as much water as they conserve, Utah’s agriculture producers need more. To that end, they are hoping and praying for wetter weather ahead. So far, so good. Precipitation this month is above average.

For his part, Wade Eliason can’t divine what the weather gods have in store or the fate of Utah’s agriculture industry. But when it comes to whether or not he and Tina will continue to grow crops and raise cattle in Sanpete County, they have already made that decision.

“We’re all in,” he said.

Correction • Oct. 25, 2:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to correctly identify Harmony Cox and to clarify where Ron Gibson farms.