In farming and ranching, much depends on the weather. And unlike a business with a roof (apologies to our controlled environment producers who can be immune) there are myriad weather factors our food, feed and fiber producers cannot control. Much of this ongoing column calls out this stark reality so readers insulated from it can get reconnected to what it takes to produce and sell food into our modern food system. In this installment water rules, like it so often does in this semi-arid landscape of the high plains.
Compared to the rest of Colorado, it is almost to the point of being embarrassing with just how much precipitation the mountains and plains have received in the South Platte River basin lately (yep, that’s us in Northern Colorado. If you are not acquainted with Colorado’s river basins, 2021 is a great year for learning it). According to the USDA NRCS, snow water equivalent in the snowpack is above 100% of a 30-year average in the mountains that feed the S. Platte and the entire basin is slowly showing signs of drought cessation based on improving soil moisture conditions. Keep your fingers cross, but the 2021 water year looks good so far in our basin. The remainder of Colorado is not as good. All other 7 mountain snow water fed basins are at most 80% (N Platte) and as little as 47% (San Miguel/Dolores) of a 30-year average snow water equivalent with the statewide average at 69%.
Referencing the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District data from its Longmont South weather station, 4.2 inches of precipitation were recorded March 1 through May 8. This likely underestimates some field totals with some farmers reporting 1.7 inches in rain events the week of May 3. These conditions can prevent farmers from tilling, planting and weeding in order to avoid damage to soil (compaction, clodding, etc.) and can simply make soil work impossible due also to tire slippage in wet, clayey soils, soil accumulation on cultivators and planters and other implements impeding their performance, etc. Workers in produce farm fields can create even more soil compaction than tractors and the same slippery soil makes for an exhausting workday, if field entry is justifiable. With soil wet enough it is both impossible and very damaging to soil. The effects of soggy soil are delays in these field activities and thus delays in planting, both seeds and transplants, and harvesting.
While seeds can be a bit more forgiving, farmers can’t stop the growth of vegetable crop transplants in their plastic containers and extended delays can cause serious crop health challenges from overgrown, root bound transplants or complete mortalities of transplants if the wait to get planted into the field is simply too long. Harvest delays and yield reductions due to missed crop growth periods are the outcomes at the farm. And when coupled with an inability for workers to enter the fields to harvest due to soggy soil, the harvest impacts are compounded.
The harvest delays clearly ripple into the marketplace and, like years when we know the Western Slope peach crop is slim or completely frozen out, some vegetable crops can be at a scarcity early in the season or throughout the season when we would normally expect to see them available in farmers markets, CSAs, produce stands and in grocery stores. Here’s link to a Colorado produce harvest calendar showing availability: coloradoproduce.org/nutrition-health.
It is important to note that this wet spring of 2021 could suddenly swing toward hot and dry and we would only experience some delays in cool season crops (those that appear earliest in the harvest calendar) with no delays in warm season crops (many of the favorites like tomatoes, melons, peppers, etc.).
Regardless, Colorado’s vegetable producers will benefit from your ongoing patronage!
By Adrian Card, Colorado State University Extension. Adrian is the agriculture extension agent for Colorado State University Extension. For more information on agriculture, visit extension.colostate.edu/agriculture.