Drought Forces Hard Choices for Farmers and Ranchers in the Southwest

Cattle crowd inside a feedlot operated by JBS Five Rivers Colorado Beef in 2012 in Wiley, Colo. Drought conditions in 2018 are again impacting the Southwest’s ranchers, forcing some to thin their herds.John Moore/Getty Images

Large reservoirs have buffered urban areas in the Southwest from the worst of the year’s dry conditions, but rural farmers and ranchers are bearing the brunt of water shortages and the economic fallout.

CHESTER, Utah – It’s only the beginning of August – typically the height of the farming season – but the irrigation ponds here in Sanpete County ran dry a month ago. They are now filled with brush and desperate waterfowl while the land surrounding them lies barren, local farmers having already stripped up most of their crops to glean what little profit they can.

Farmer Scott Sunderland runs the numbers on his smartphone and the outlook is bleak. He needs $250,000 just to pay the taxes and debts he owes on the 700-acre farm he’s managed for more than three decades. If he’s lucky, he’ll have $220,000 by the end of the season.

“If the drought holds on another year,” he said, “we’re going to have to start liquidating … But once you start down that road, it’s almost a dead end.”

Chester, an unincorporated community in central Utah, has been hit by “exceptional” drought conditions, the most severe rating issued by the United States Drought Monitor. For much of the southwestern U.S., this past winter has marked one of the driest periods in recorded history.

Population centers in the West have been relatively insulated from the disaster, protected by large reservoirs capable of storing water for multiple years. But rural towns and the farmers and ranchers who populate them have been devastated. In many cases, struggling farmers have already been pushed off more fertile lands by urban development. Now, some of the remaining ones hope to sell out and scrape together enough cash to retire, while others have already begun to look for new jobs.

“It’s hard to paint a picture because a lot of the time when people talk about drought, you just shower less and water your lawn less,” said Cassidy Johnston, a rancher in Capitan, New Mexico. “In town, yeah, your lawn may be yellow, but here, you may have to move and sell the business your family has had for generations.”

A Regional Crisis

More than half the western U.S. is currently experiencing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sparsely populated areas in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona in particular are grappling with dry conditions of historic proportions – many small irrigation companies are reporting water shortages the likes of which have not been seen since the 1970s.

Half of the West is facing drought conditions, but the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona is particularly hard-hit. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

This isn’t necessarily because these areas got less snow over a disastrously dry winter than some of the surrounding environs, said Troy Brosten, a Utah-based hydrologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service. The main issue is the lack of water storage in some remote areas.

Despite the lack of snowfall this past winter, Brosten said, larger reservoirs started the year with plenty of water left over from last year. These reservoirs are still mostly full, so the areas that draw from them haven’t experienced actual water shortages.

But some smaller reservoirs only have capacity for enough water to last about one year, Brosten said. They rely on each year’s snowpack to provide the following summer’s irrigation water. This year, there simply wasn’t enough snow to replenish their reserves.

Many farmers are increasingly reliant on these smaller reservoirs and water systems, said Kate Greenberg, who oversees western chapters of the national Young Farmers Coalition from her office in Durango, Colo. Farmers who once held senior rights in more secure reservoirs have, in some cases, opted to escape pressure from urban development by selling their lands and moving their operations further afield. The situation has been exacerbated by government policies to encourage water managers to secure water for urban growth by buying out farms, Greenberg said.

This was the fate of the Sunderland family farm, which was originally located in Lehi, Utah – a city that in a few short years has been completely transformed by the arrival of several big-name software companies, including Adobe.

The family knew that the new property in Chester was “drier country” when they moved more than 30 years ago to avoid being crowded out by development, Scott Sunderland’s brother Edwin said. But they were willing to take the risk so they could expand their operation and hopefully increase their earnings potential.

But compared to even a decade ago, Scott Sunderland added, Chester’s water doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to.

Chester doesn’t have access to a full-sized reservoir, but gets its water from a series of pipelines and storage ponds, said Edwin, who now manages a small portion of the family property. They started the season, he said, with about half their total water capacity. By July 4, the water was gone.

Farmers in Chester, Utah, store irrigation water in ponds such as these for use later in the summer. This year, the ponds ran dry in early July, exposing the swampy terrain underneath. (Emma Penrod)

Scott, who is maintaining the larger portion of the brothers’ farm so that his children can inherit the operation, gets water from the Horseshoe irrigation company. Consequently, he still has access to a little water, but it’s only enough to irrigate about a quarter of his land – and it’s been that way most of the summer, he said.

As a result of the shortage, the Sunderlands have already abandoned most of their fields for the season. Scott opted to bale and sell most of the 200 acres of wheat he had planted as animal feed, rather than watch it wither uselessly in the field. Only half of his 500 acres of alfalfa, which typically yield several crops per season, produced a second set of bales.

In total, Edwin Sunderland estimated they’d have less than half as much income as in a typical year.

But it’s not just Utah. Farmers in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona all face similar situations.

“It’s not necessarily part of agricultural culture to talk about that, but farmers are up against some serious decisions right now,” Greenberg said. “I think there are a lot of calls to banks, lots of calls to insurance agencies, lots of time around kitchen tables figuring out how to tighten up enough to make it.”

Rural Impacts

Even ranchers who don’t typically rely on their ability to grow crops to make ends meet are struggling this year.

“Rain is the only thing we talk about,” said Johnston in Capitan. “Before they ask you how you are, they ask you, ‘Have you gotten any rain?’”

The weather patterns in New Mexico have become fickle, she said. One ranch might get a spot of rain while the range 10 miles down the road remains dry. The Johnston family’s immediate situation, she said, is not dire. They’ve seen more moisture than some of the surrounding areas, and they have access to solar-powered wells that pump water for their 600 cattle to drink.

Still, there’s too little grass on the range to sustain their herd. So far they’ve made it by feeding protein supplements to their mother cows, but they’re already talking about whether to wean the calves early this year, Johnston said.

Early weaning is not a decision that’s made lightly. It means the calves won’t grow as large, which means less income this year – cattle ranchers like Johnston are paid by the pound. But if you don’t wean the calves and the herd overgrazes, she said, you run the risk of running out of feed entirely. The grass won’t grow back if it doesn’t rain.

“Most of us have drinking water,” Johnston said, “but all the drinking water in the world doesn’t change anything if your cattle don’t have anything to eat. We count on rain. We count on rain for everything.”

Some of her neighbors have been less lucky, she added. One just received an insurance payment for $20,000, and spent it all on hay – the drought has caused hay prices to surge. Some are contemplating selling their herds but holding onto their land in hopes the weather improves in years to come. Others may go out of business entirely.

For sale signs and vacant farm fields in Chester, Utah. The town irrigation system ran out of water in early July this summer, causing many farmers to lose their crops. Some farmers in Chester are weighing selling their lands to stave off foreclosure. (Emma Penrod)

“It’s devastating,” Johnston said. “It can mean the end of an era for a family, and I think it’s one of the reasons why rural areas are dying out, because we depend on so many things we can’t control, and don’t make money doing it.”

Some farmers and ranchers have begun to explore taking on part-time or seasonal jobs to try to make it through the drought. Edwin Sunderland said he’d found a stop-gap picking up the occasional gig as a truck driver. But there aren’t always alternative jobs available in rural areas, Johnston said. And the notion of giving up and moving to the city is unbearable for some.

“A lot of people in rural areas can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “The idea of having to quit and move to town is just devastating.”

For her part, Johnston hopes to find a way to diversify. She’s looking into the notion of selling carbon credits to bring in extra income. Johnston has also considered agritourism – anything that might help pay the bills that isn’t so dependent on rain and snow.

Even diversification can only go so far. Scott Sunderland, who doesn’t have time to take on a second job like his brother, had hoped buying a local turkey farm would help even out the ups and downs associated with the local water situation. But for the last three to four years, he said, being in the turkey industry hasn’t paid. His farm has the capacity to raise 300,000 turkeys, but this year his buyer is only willing to pay for half of that.

The only cost they could cut, he said, was one hired hand. Everything else – the mortgage, the payments on their tractors and equipment – is non-negotiable.

To make matters worse, Scott said, the interest rates on his loans have skyrocketed to align with an economy that seems to be booming everywhere except the rural Southwest.

The Sunderlands hope to hold onto their farm long enough to make it through the drought, so that ultimately they can pass the property on to Scott’s daughter and son-in-law. But if the drought persists even another year, Scott said, they’re going to have to start selling off property to make ends meet.

Added Threats

In addition to water shortages and rising interest rates, farmers in southwestern Colorado have had to deal with a third threat: wildfires.

This drought has largely been a slow-moving disaster, Greenberg said. Most farmers and ranchers knew it was coming and made planting decisions and even started culling their herds before summer’s arrival.

Then the fires came and closed tens of thousands of acres of rangeland to grazing. And even when the overdue rain finally arrived and put out the fires, it came with floods and landslides that filled irrigation ditches and drowned crops.

“The hillside is sloughing off and running into farms,” Greenberg explained. “Mud and boulders are taking out crops. It’s caused an ongoing cycle of crisis and recovery for a lot of producers.”

Some Colorado ranchers who began the year by cutting back have already sold off their herds, Greenberg said. The talk has turned from where to pinch pennies, to how to preserve key genetic traits in the livestock for ranchers who make it through.

Selling off one’s livestock and lands comes with its own set of consequences, Johnston said. As more ranchers sell their livestock, it creates a surplus on the market and reduces what each subsequent rancher gets for their herds. So the ranchers are stuck with a gamble – do they hope to ride it out, or sell out early before the market is saturated by desperate ranch sales?

Farmers, similarly, are weighing their options. You can’t sell farmland that doesn’t have enough water to grow crops, Scott Sunderland said.

Edwin Sunderland estimates the value of one of his family’s alfalfa fields in Chester, Utah. Although the field would normally produce several crops over the summer, most of his fields only grew enough for one harvest this year, prompting the Sunderland family to entertain selling some of their property to make ends meet. (Emma Penrod)

The Sunderlands and Johnstons have a few years to dig out and find new streams of revenue. But for older farmers, the stakes are higher. Allen Dyring, who runs a farm south of Chester in Gunnison, Utah, plans to retire on the proceeds from the sale of his farm. He has no other retirement plan or savings.

Gunnison, like Chester, ran out of water in early July despite having access to a reservoir. A minimal amount of mountain runoff is allowing the irrigation company, which Dyring oversees, to provide farmers with some water spread across the town’s 14,000 acres of farmland.

“It will take me probably 10 years to pay back what I will lose this year,” Dyring said. But he doesn’t plan to stay in the farming business long enough to recover. In two years or so, he said, he’ll sell out and take what he gets.

Dyring is banking on the value of the mountain runoff he owns. The farms and towns that have been unaffected by the drought so far are largely getting by, thanks to their access to larger reservoirs or well water. But those sources, too, are someday going to feel the effects of a drying climate.

“It will take a while, but this is getting to be a serious problem,” he said. “Locally we feel it now. But sooner or later, everybody is going to feel it.”

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