Drought threatening area farmers’ future production
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
The animals, plants, soil and insects at Sustainable Settings will tell visitors all they need to know about this season’s drought.
“That’s nature’s intelligence,” said Brook Le Van, co-founder of Sustainable Settings, a multi-faceted nonprofit agricultural operation south of Carbondale. “We have to be smart enough to know and pay attention to the signs.”
A lack of bee swarms, the early disappearance of snow atop Mount Sopris, browner and drier grass compared with past years and molting plants are just a few signs that farms and ranches like Sustainable Settings may not be able to produce enough hay and crops to get by until next spring.
High summer temperatures and strong winds have sucked much of the available water out of the ground near the Crystal River, making it difficult, to say the least, for crops like hay to grow.
Sustainable Settings normally produces two cuts of hay per summer, but this year, there is not enough water to irrigate the fields to produce a second cutting of hay. This means that the ranch may be forced to buy hay from elsewhere, which can be very costly.
According to Le Van, Sustainable Settings supplies milk and dairy to 80 to 100 families every week from Eagle to Aspen.
“We told members the ranch cannot afford the hay to keep the herd in its current state,” Le Van said. “If they want milk before next May, we have to buy hay. If they don’t help us buy it, we will have to sell animals.”
Fewer animals on the farm will mean less milk to go around. Le Van said the ranch has so far raised about a third of what they need to be able to buy hay, but the situation is still grim.
“Drought is more complex than just what’s flowing in the rivers and streams,” LeVan said.
As the moisture levels in the soil drops, farmers must find a way to irrigate their fields as early as possible. Farmers who have senior water rights will be able to buy the water they need to irrigate their fields, while those with fewer water rights will have to start weighing other options.
As Le Van put it, “Basically, it’s about buying water.”
At Sustainable Settings, the ranchers have been studying soil building, and the soil they use to grow their crops is rich in life and minerals, Le Van said. He said that the rich soil is more drought-tolerant, meaning it creates pockets of moisture which can store water to sustain plants longer than a poorer, drier soil could.
“We may fare better than those who are using poisons and killing things. Emphasis on ‘may,’” Le Van said.
Sustainable Settings is not the only agricultural operation in the region dealing with this issue; not by a long shot.
As cattle ranchers are forced to sell their herds, Le Van said beef prices will start to go down because cows will be sold and flood the market. Some beef farmers are already starting to auction off their animals early, before the market gets too crowded.
CSU Extension agent Abi Saeed, who specializes in agriculture, horticulture and natural resources, said the drought was sparked by “very low amounts of precipitation over the winter and spring.” The summer began with less snowmelt than usual, so farmers and those who study agriculture knew they needed to prepare for a dry season.
Saeed also said aside from farmers, local home gardeners will be impacted by the drought conditions. Dairy and meat farms have been especially impacted all over the region because a lack of irrigation makes it difficult to grow hay, which results in not enough food for the animals. Hay prices have risen significantly with the high demand.
According to CSU Extension, as of May, Garfield County currently fell within a moderate- to severe-drought designation. While the dire situation is in plain sight of local farmers, drought can also have an impact on summer recreation and wildfire risk. Saeed said that, due to extreme fire danger, some popular recreational areas are difficult to access, and tourists are opting not to visit areas impacted by wildfires.
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After relaxing the lease restrictions at the city-owned Marolt Ranch affordable housing complex, the units are all spoken for this winter.