Scorched Summers: Tough Choices for Farmers and Ranchers

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A severe drought is hitting farmers and ranchers in this state hard. But they’ve been here before. A similar drought, ten years ago, walloped agriculture. We'll talk shortly with the head of a sale barn, who says the drought is forcing ranchers to sell cattle much earlier than they would otherwise. But first, CPR’s Ben Markus reports on how farmers are managing the drought this time around.

Find our entire Scorched Summers series here

Reporter Ben Markus: Vern Cooksey’s family has farmed this corner of Weld County formore than a century. And he says conditions are so dry this year that they had to harvest wheat earlier than anyone can remember.

Vern Cooksey: No, not that I can ever remember. No, it was a record early – being early, so.

Reporter: He estimates that he’ll lose about a quarter of his crops this year because of the drought. On his sprawling 11-thousand acre farm, Cooksey stands between two very different fields. On one side are the sunflowers. Most too dry to even sprout from the ground. He couldn’t afford to water them. Instead he chose to water the pumpkins, because it’s a more lucrative crop.

Cooksey: You definitely have to make choices about which crops you want to save.

Reporter: Cooksey has seen droughts before. He says 2002 was as bad as this year’s drought. But at 72 years old, having farmed now for 5 decades, Cooksey has learned a thing or two abo ut weathering downturns. He hedged his bets, and decided to store some of last season’s bumper crop.

Cooksey: If you have a decent crop, you want to save part of it for, got to pay the expenses next year as well as this year, you know.

Reporter: Lucky for Cooksey, global demand has pushed commodity prices through the roof. Meaning, what he is able to harvest is fetching a much higher price than it did during the drought 10 years ago. Jason Henderson says, despite the drought, farming today is in a golden era. Henderson is an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. He says farm incomes are at record highs. And debt levels are low. The average age of farmers is approaching 60 years old -- the ones who’ve survived all these years are stronger and wiser.

Jason Henderson: They tend to have more conservative views on investments, and conservative views on the level of debt that they accumulate on the farm.

Reporter: Unfortunately, the best management practices on the strongest farms can’t help everyone through a drought. Like Cooksey, Dave Eckhart’s family has farmed the same plot of land in La Salle for generations. He looked at this year’s low snowfall and scaled back planting corn -- he fallowed some fields and planted pinto beans in others … because they need less water.

Dave Eckhart: It turns out Mother Nature threw a curveball and gave us even less than that.

Reporter: Eckhart stands in one of his cornfields -- filled only with dying plants.

Eckhart: We had to decide what it was that we wanted to save, so we moved the water elsewhere, and this is what’s left of what was a very good looking corn crop.

Reporter: And if it hadn’t died, that corn could have brought in more than $800,000. Eckhart says that’s because corn prices are soaring.

Eckhart: It’s like planning a funeral, you’ve put your time and effort, and obviously some money into a crop. It’s like deciding to pull life support off of something, you know what’s going to happen, you know what’s inevitable.

Reporter: Over all he estimates the farm will lose about 40-percent of its potential revenue. The twist is, he and other farmers along the South Platte say they're sitting on an ocean of ground water. But they can’t use it. During the '02 drought they did -- prompting a lawsuit from water users downstream. The courts ordered the farmers to stop. And Governor John Hickenlooper recently denied the farmer’s emergency request to pump the wells, citing long-standing water law. John Stulp is the Governor’s Water Advisor.

John Stulp: There’s not a silver bullet, and just turning on the wells will not solve the problem. But this is the difficulty of drought, the definition of drought, there’s not enough water to go around.

Reporter: As a farmer himself Stulp understands the plight of the drought stricken. He likes to think of farmers as water harvesters.

Stulp: It’s really how you make your income, how you support your family, how you pay for your farm, but that’s also true of the farmer downstream, or the municipality downstream, that has a right to use that water.

Reporter: The total damage of this drought won’t be known for some time. It’s clear that farmers in general will take a hit -- some worse than others. But back at Cooksey Farms, Vern Cooksey says that’s what being a farmer is all about.

Cooksey: They talk about people in Las Vegas being gamblers, you know. There’s nobody that’s an any bigger gambler than the farmer is.

Reporter: Farmers have learned a lot from past droughts, like in 2002. It’s changed the way they plan for dry years. And their finances are much stronger these days. But farmers like Cooksey know that even the best planning can’t outsmart the weather.

Ben Markus, Colorado Public Radio News.

Drought, and specifically a lack of grass, is forcing some ranchers to sell off their cattle. Unfortunate for ranchers, but something of a boon for sale barns. Host Ryan Warner spoke with John Campbell, president of the Winter Livestock Auction in La Junta.

[Photo: Ben Markus]