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September 12, 2013
Drought driving up costs for local farmers, ranchers

This summer’s weather has produced mixed results for Tooele County farmers and ranchers, but the lack of water has taken a toll in most parts of Tooele Valley.

Most crops reliant on irrigation water have come up short this year, said Leland Hogan, a Stockton farmer and president of the Utah Farm Bureau. Farmers who had access to well water faired better, but still found their crop yields lower than favorable summer weather predicted.

The few storms that have come this summer have done little to alleviate the situation — soils are so dry, they don’t absorb any water.

“It’s like throwing a bucket of water on cement,” Hogan said. “It just runs off.”

Even in Erda, where most crops are irrigated with well water, dry weather has stunted once promising crops. Summer temperatures were high, but not too hot, which should have encouraged alfalfa growth.

“As warm as it’s been, if we’d had rain, it could have been an excellent year,” said Scott Droubay, who grows alfalfa and other crops in Erda. Although he hasn’t taken a third cut yet, he said he anticipates a yield of about 6.5 tons per acre, which is about average for his fields.

The hay that has grown this year is of high quality, because the lack of rain has prevented mold from growing in the alfalfa — a common problem during wetter years, when cut hay may take too long to dry before it can be baled. With the high quality and short supply in mind, Droubay said he plans to ask about $180 a ton for his alfalfa this year.

With the average price for hay in Utah nearing $200 a ton — statistics from the USDA put the price of alfalfa at $195 in July — Droubay said he realizes he could ask for more. But he prefers to keep his price low to encourage customers to return next year.

“I know you don’t have to drive too far to find people selling for $200 to $220,” he said.

Other farmers have not been so lucky. Too little irrigation water hurt crops in Rush Valley, where resident rancher Darrell Johnson said surveys had recorded soil samples completely devoid of moisture.

On the 40 acres he has irrigated, he said his fields yielded about five tons an acre, but his unirrigated fields were a wash. Overall, the drought reduced his total harvest by at least 70 percent, he said.

The local range, likewise, is in rough shape, prompting Johnson to stock up on hay to feed his cattle over the winter. But because of the expense, he said he would probably have to reduce the size of his herd.

“We missed some of the storms that have hit Tooele, and even Stockton,” he said. “It’s been a hard year for us. Production is way down, just because of the water.”

Hogan said he has seen many of the same problems in his own fields in Stockton. The dry weather has sucked water out of the soil, which has forced farmers to make choices about what crops they can afford to irrigate, while leaving the rest to wither. Across the state, he said, some farmers ran out of water as early as June.

This has lead to hay shortages that concern livestock owners in the area.

“What you have at the end of the summer is what you’re going to have for the next eight months,” he said.

Drought conditions last year did force several small ranchers to go out of business, but Hogan said he believed most would be able to make it through the drought.

“Farmers are resilient,” he said “We’ve lived through things that are probably worse than what we’re dealing with right now. They will find a way to work it out. That’s the way it’s been forever.”

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