Growing season hail causes crop problems for northern Colorado farmers
For more information on crop insurance and on J-9 Crop Insurance in Ault, go to http://j9crop.com or call (970) 834-1160.
Back in the 1990s, severe storms seemed to shred the crop tended by Glen Fritzler and his fellow farmers every year. That’s why he started his popular corn maze in LaSalle. The agritainment business cushioned him from the unpredictable nature of farming. It helped him survive.
He’ll need the maze even more this year.
One of the worst hailstorms in years, if not decades, hammered through Gilcrest and LaSalle on Aug. 2, battering homes and many producers’ crops, causing millions in damage. On an average year, the agritourism component of the business makes up about 50 percent of farm’s income. This year, it will have to make up more than half, he said. The hailstorm took the rest. Fritzler’s Corn Maze, in fact, may look sparser than it has in previous years, but it will still stand.
It’s too early to tell how the worn cornfields will recover and what kinds of losses he will face. Fritzler may lose half his onion crop. His vines may not produce any pumpkins this year: He may have to ship in pumpkins for the patch at his popular agritourism destination in LaSalle.
Other Weld County producers felt the impact of the storm, too. Above-ground vegetables were demolished and onions, though salvageable, took a hit in yield size and quality. According to Joyce Kelly, executive director of the Colorado Pork Producers Council, talk around the industry is that Weld County has lost about 20 percent of its corn crop due to hail.
“It’s just one of those years that you just hope they never come,” Fritzler said. “When they do, you just have to deal with it.”
In the time since he started the maze, he hasn’t seen a storm as damaging as last week’s.
Dave Petrocco, a Brighton-based farmer with vegetable plots across Weld County, had 400 acres in LaSalle hit by the Aug. 2 storm. On that 400 acres of cabbage, onions, various greens, green beans, squash and peppers, the only thing that may have a chance at being salvaged are the onions. Everything else is a total loss, Petrocco said. That means he’ll also lose the thousands of dollars he invests per acre.
The cost for each acre varies, depending on labor, fertilizer and insecticide, and he hasn’t tallied how much money he will lose due to hail. But he knows that between the complete loss in LaSalle and a hail storm in Fort Lupton earlier this year that wiped out about half the crops there, he will not make any profit this year.
Petrocco, who has run the family farm for 48 years, but has been farming all 69 years of his life, said he hasn’t seen a year this bad since 1973. Though the 2016 growing season isn’t over, it may be the worst hail year he’s ever seen, he said.
“When these kinds of disasters happen, it just reminds me after all these years that I’ve been farming how much of a risk we do by putting those seeds in the ground and expecting a harvest,” he said. “The risk is so much that I am amazed that we go on.”
Dave Eckhardt, president of the Colorado Corn Growers Association, farms about 2,800 acres of corn, onions and beans in the LaSalle area. The storm hit about 600 acres of his crops and nearly destroyed 200.
Eckhardt said he will likely lose about half of his average yield of red and yellow beans, and those he is able to harvest will be poor quality. His onions, though they will still be marketable, weren’t able to stay in the ground after the storm, so they didn’t have the chance to mature.
Eckhardt grows both corn for silage and for grain, and he expects he will lose about 4-8 tons of the corn for silage — about a fourth of what he produces. It’s too early to predict the losses on the corn for grain, as it still has some time to recover.
Last week’s hail hit the west side of U.S. 85, but this summer’s storms have been scattered all over Weld, Eckhardt said. Both Ault and Galeton have gotten hail. A hailstorm hit New Raymer July 17 and damaged the wheat in the middle of harvesting. For some farmers, such as Jim Mertens, both wheat and corn crops were damaged.
“It was pretty devastating,” said Mertens, who lost half his wheat crop.
Kelly, who farms with her husband in Greeley, said their property has been mostly lucky this year. They have a corn and sugar beet farm in Galeton that has been hit twice by hail, and their plots at their home near the Greeley-Weld County Airport have been hit by heavy rain. Kelly stressed they’ve been luckier than most.
They will begin harvesting corn for silage in a few weeks, and she’s just hoping the heavy hails keep missing their area.
“You couldn’t find a place really this year to hide,” Eckhardt said. “You’re just kind of waiting for your turn in the barrel.”
Though Eckhardt and many other farmers have crop insurance, which can help keep farmers in business after devastating hail storms, he said it won’t help him make back the losses from this storm, as it pays less than the cost of production.
Janine Freeman, owner of J-9 Crop Insurance in Ault, said there haven’t been more claims this year than in previous years, but it seems like the storms have come in many areas and hit crops harshly.
Freeman said she’s seen a handful of claims from last week’s storm, but most of the farmers in the area are waiting to see if their corn recovers and if harvest is viable before they take any action. She explained that corn often will bounce back a little, but sometimes, it will get worse. If the damage is too bad, some farmers will opt not to harvest at all.
Crop insurance covers a crop’s yield up to a certain amount, so if a farmer can manage at least a fair harvest, he likely won’t get a crop insurance payout. However, crop insurance will probably cover those fields that were hit the hardest, Freeman said.
“It makes a catastrophe year into a bad year,” Freeman said.
Tuesday, Freeman drove to Denver through some of the affected areas. It looked bad, she said, but she expects most farmers will take the corn all the way through harvest. Still, most will see losses in yield, she predicted.
Before the storm, though, this season’s crops looked great, Eckhardt said. At both his farm and others in the area, he said he saw corn, onions, beans and potatoes all looking good and progressing nicely.
Now, he’s just hoping for some relief. There’s a lot of growing season to go.
“It’s kind of like having a funeral,” he said. “You had something you cared about that made a difference to your livelihood, and that’s gone.” ❖
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign SB 21-87, known as the Farm Workers Bill of Rights, though much of the content will be decided through the rulemaking process.