‘One day closer to the next rainstorm.’ Drought hits Utah farmers more than city dwellers, Robert Gehrke writes

With no end in sight, some are letting crops die and selling off the cattle they won’t be able to feed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ron Gibson is a sixth generation dairy farmer and president of the Utah Farm Bureau. Gibson was photographed at his Ogden farm, Green Acres Dairy, Wednesday, August, 1, 2018.

T.J. Atkin’s family has been running cattle on the Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon for 85 years — but they’ve never experienced anything like this year.

Normally there are about 200 ponds on the desert range where the cattle graze, filled in the late summer and early fall by monsoon rains. But in 2019, the monsoons didn’t come.

And then they didn’t come again last year.

Today, Atkin told me, every single one of those ponds is dry.

He has shipped about 400 cattle to northern Nevada where there is water from the spring runoff and is hauling water to about 200 more from St. George and Colorado City, but it’s not cheap.

“We’ve never done that in this history of doing this, ever. It’s not profitable,” Atkin said. “Everything I’m trying to do right now is hold on for one more monsoon. … If we miss a third one, I’m done.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

For most of us, the intense drought that is gripping most of the state is an abstraction. Maybe we don’t water our lawn or try to take shorter showers. But anywhere from 85% to 90% of water used in the state goes to agriculture. For those who rely on that water for their livelihood, the drought is a very real and dire threat.

Dustin Cox got his first cow when he was 11 years old. In 30 years, he said, he and his family have never had to bring his cattle off the range in southern Kane County and around Page, Ariz., to feed them.

Even in dry years, Cox said, they have held some pastures in reserve, just in case, but now even those are depleted.

“We’ve used our food storage, we’ve used all the food off the grocery store shelves, so now what do we do?” said Cox, who is mayor of the town of Alton.

If the rains don’t come within the next few months, Cox said he will probably have to sell off about half his herd.

Cox isn’t alone. Typically this time of year about 300 or 400 head of cattle are being sold at the Salina cattle auction. This year, the number is triple that as ranchers are culling their herds, says Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau and farmer and rancher in Weber County.

Gibson said at his farm and others in Weber and Davis counties, farmers are being told they will get somewhere between 40% to 50% of their normal allotments of water. With crops already in the ground, that means having to pick which ones will get the water and which ones are a loss.

“For the first time in my life we’re going to fallow ground this year on our farm, some of it that we just won’t water,” Gibson said.

The potatoes and onions Gibson is growing will take priority over growing feed for cattle, but then he has to contend with what he will feed his cows.

“If we can’t grow the feed for our livestock, I don’t know how we buy feed, because this is in Idaho, California, Nevada, the whole West is in this drought,” he said. “It’s not even available if you have the money.”

The feed Gibson is feeding his cows now already costs twice what it did last year. The COVID pandemic impacted commodity prices last year, and now fuel prices are rising adding to the strain.

There is a legitimate viewpoint that grazing cattle on southern Utah’s barren desert isn’t the most sustainable endeavor in the first place, and there are objections to the damage the cows can do to the landscape. Those are valid discussions.

But the reality is they’re there and ranching and farming has ingrained itself in rural Utah’s culture for generations. Not to mention that agriculture — farming and ranching — generated $1.8 billion in total receipts and created more than 25,000 jobs earning more than $320 million in wages in 2019. This drought could have a severe impact on the future of agriculture in the state, as farmers are forced out of business and real estate developers creep into the farmland.

Federal government disaster aid, Atkin said, is the only thing keeping many ranchers in business. Gov. Spencer Cox has already declared a state of emergency due to the drought this year, but even that aid may not be enough for many to survive yet another year of dry conditions.

For more than two decades, drought has become the new normal, with large swaths of the state experiencing moderate to severe drought. Scientists call it the “millennium drought” because it began around 2000.

It’s impossible to ignore the role of climate change and warming temperatures in the equation, and unless we come to terms with that, temperatures will continue to rise, drought will be even more pervasive, wildfires will rage and farming and ranching will become even more tenuous.

But for now, Utah farmers have a more immediate problem, as they try to scrimp and adapt, eke out a living, watch the skies, pray for rain and — in Dustin Cox’s case — somehow manage to stay optimistic.

“You know what’s good about today?” he asked me. “It’s one day closer to the next rainstorm.”