November 2005

2005: The best of times, or the worst?

By Carolyn Dunmire

Ah, harvest time. Orchard parties and U-Pick signs inviting you to gather a piece of autumn condensed into a crisp, red apple. Or the pleasant weariness that comes from putting up the last of two dozen jars of salsa lovingly made from homegrown tomatoes and chilis.

These are the ways that many of us experience the harvest, but for a significant portion of our neighbors, harvest time is when they learn their economic fate for the next year. Even after all of their diligent work through the spring and summer, uncontrollable factors such as market prices and weather ultimately determine whether they make a profit or not.

STORING GARBANZO BEANS

Agriculture plays a small but significant role in the economic vitality of the Four Corners region. According to federal, state and regional statistics, there are about 1,500 jobs in agriculture and agricultural services (such as veterinarians and feed providers) in Montezuma and Dolores counties. Four out of five of these jobs are directly related to crop and livestock production and the remainder are in ag services.

Surprisingly, given drought and other adversities, the total number of agricultural jobs in the region has increased over the past 10 years. In 2002, agribusiness contributed 2 percent of total income for Montezuma County and 15 percent for Dolores County, where agriculture is the largest employer.

Even the majority of us who are not ranchers or farmers appreciate the non-economic amenities that farms and ranches provide us: Pastoral views. Open space. A connection to the changing seasons. A chance to buy our food directly from the producer at the farmers’ market.

However, recent analysis for the Comprehensive Development Strategy, a report compiled periodically by Region 9, has uncovered some rather disturbing trends in agriculture for Montezuma County. Their analysis shows that since 1994, production expenses have consistently exceeded agricultural income.

This means that for the past 10 years, on average, farmers and ranchers in Montezuma County have lost money.

Harvest 2005 has had the usual mixed results. Above-average moisture levels increased yields for hay, beans, and other produce, but untimely rain reduced hay quality and in some cases, hail pummeled entire crops into oblivion.

Cattle prices are the highest in years, helping ranchers offset some of their losses due to drought and higher fuel prices. The fruit harvest was spotty. But, for grape-growers prepared with frost protection, this was a banner year.

Alfalfa hay: Good news and bad news

In Montezuma and Dolores counties, alfalfa hay comprises the largest share of total crop revenue, though in Dolores County dry beans are a close second. In Montezuma County, which has good access to irrigation water provided from the Dolores River though the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company and the Dolores Water Conservancy District, more acres are planted in alfalfa hay than all other crops combined. In Dolores County, with its more limited access to irrigation water, more land is planted in dry beans and wheat than alfalfa, though in 2004 alfalfa hay had a higher crop value than beans or wheat.

According to the Econometer, a quarterly economic report put out by the Fort Lewis College School of Business, prices for alfalfa hay are up 10.1 percent over last year. On average, the price of one ton of premium dairy-grade alfalfa hay is $110. This is good news for hay farmers.

Additionally, an above-average snowpack filled McPhee Reservoir and DWCD farmers could use a full allocation of irrigation water. Alfalfa yields were up and 2005 looked like the year when hay farmers would finally turn the corner after the devastating drought of the past few years. Unfortunately, badly timed rains damaged the cut alfalfa.

“Most farmers haven’t had a dry cutting since June,” observed Bob Bragg of Southwest Management Consulting and Training. “They haven’t been able to get the cut alfalfa out of the fields before it rained and the resulting damaged hay can only be sold for beef-cattle feed at $70 to $80 per ton — if it can be sold at all.”

Dry beans: high yields, low prices

Last year, dry beans made up about one-quarter of the estimated $13 million in crop revenue for Montezuma and Dolores counties. As the self-proclaimed “pinto-bean capital of the world,” Dove Creek and Dolores County depend on dry beans for economic and social status in the community.

Starting with good winter moisture in the dryland fields, 2005 brought a good growing season and excellent yields. But as with alfalfa, late-season rains during harvest may have damaged the crop.

“We need a dry spell to pick up the rest of the beans,” Bragg said. “The beans down in the fields held up for the first wet period, but wet and cold weather could do damage to those beans.”

Even for beans that were harvested before the wet weather, the news is not good. Dry-bean prices are down by 40 percent from last year. In 2004, dry beans were commanding a price of $28 per hundred-weight (cwt). This year the price has been as low as $20.

This could be devastating for local bean farmers who planted more acres in beans this year after last year’s high prices and spent money on seed and fuel to produce a bumper crop — only to see oversupply causing prices to plummet. With fuel prices — the major production cost for these dryland farmers — increasing by 100 percent or more, low prices don’t give them much motivation to remove the remainder of the soggy beans from their fields.

Livestock: A bright spot

The bright spot in the commodity ag markets is calf prices, which according to the Econometer are more than 15 percent higher than last year. per hundred-weight for feeder cattle,” said Bragg, who has been tracking cattle prices in the region. The reason for this price increase, however, is not clear. Some of the increase is attributed to higher beef demand caused by the high-protein diet craze. Other experts point to a drop in supply because the Canadian border has been closed to cattle imports because of Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (mad cow) scares.

However, when the border opened late this summer and Canadian cattle imports resumed, prices did not change. Whatever the reason, higher cattle prices mean that ranchers have a better chance of keeping up with higher fuel and production costs and making a profit this year.

Farmers’ market grows

The Cortez Farmers’ Market has been the place to buy local produce for more than 26 years. The size of the market has ebbed and flowed, but the past three years have seen substantial growth.

Rosie Carter of Stone Free Farm, a member of the all-volunteer Cortez Farmers’ Market Committee, attributes the market’s recent success “to efforts by a dedicated group of core vendors.”

The market committee made changes to the arrangement of vendors to create a better environment and scheduled live music each week. A greater variety of vendors selling everything from vegetables, fruit, flowers, bread and honey to breakfast burritos also increased the market’s appeal.

Carter thinks sales were up for everyone, despite the lack of fruit this year. Locally grown fruit is usually a big customer draw, but spring freezes in McElmo Canyon eliminated most peach and apricot yield, although some apricots were available from Dolores County. Overall, the Cortez Farmers’ Market is turning into a regular weekend event profitable for both buyers and sellers.

Specialty crops: A promising future?

Just as the farmers’ market is finding success through diversification, local farmers are moving beyond traditional hay, beans, and wheat. Grapes and garbanzo beans are some of the specialty crops that have been successfully grown in the area. The most recent ag experiment is oil-seed crops such as sunflower and canola to provide feedstock for the much-anticipated biodiesel production facilities that are planned for the region.

Vintner Guy Drew enthusiastically reported that in his vineyards in McElmo Canyon, “The grape harvest went very well this year. Much better than last year, with five times more volume and better-quality grapes.”

Drew attributed the improved harvest to more mature grapevines and improved frost protection. The highlight of this year’s harvest at Guy Drew Vineyards was having enough volume from each of the 10 grape varieties to produce some varietal wines (wines made from a single grape variety rather than a mixture) for the first time.

The Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon were especially promising; however Drew won’t know the quality of the wines produced from these grapes for six to 24 months.

“Winemaking is an evolving process,” Drew observed. “You don’t know the result until it is bottled. Some wines, like the reds, keep changing as they age in the barrel.” Clearly, patience (and a substantial savings account) are virtues in the wine-making business.

The Southwestern Colorado Research Center in Yellow Jacket, operated by the Colorado State University Extension Office, is designed to try new crops and growing methods. They have experimented with everything from dwarf fruit trees, using innovative irrigation and frost-protection systems, to grapes and garbanzo beans, and this year, oil-seed crops such as canola and brown mustard. Oil-seed crops would be used as feedstock for biodiesel-production facilities.

Locally grown diesel fuel has plenty of appeal [See story on Page 6], as is demonstrated by the success of biodiesel in Durango, where the city’s fleet uses it. The other appeal of oil-seed crops is that farmers could use existing equipment and cropping practices to grow and harvest them.

One of the most significant barriers to adopting new crops in the region is usually the investment in existing equipment and the inertia of traditional cropping practices.

But Mark Stack, who directed the oilseed- crop experiments in Yellow Jacket, found that they could use a standard wheat combine to harvest the canola. Next season, they plan to experiment with other oil-seed crops such as other types of canola, soybeans, and safflower.

With the tightening economics of farming and ranching, the future of agriculture in the area may depend on the rest of us somehow compensating farmers and ranchers for the amenities they provide, because the harvest alone may not be bountiful enough.