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Severe drought taxing already stressed farmers, ranchers in Colorado

Holly Jessen
for The Fence Post
Bare land is shown in southeast Colorado, which is in extreme or exceptional drought.
Photo courtesy Baca County Extension Office

Comparing drought conditions in southeast Colorado to the Dust Bowl, Jillane Hixson of Hixson Farms in Lamar, Colo., is sounding the alarm, asking for the prompt attention of state and federal officials.

Farmers like Hixson, who works with her brothers, Ron and Eric Hixson, in Prowers County, Colorado, already faced economic losses with the drought of 2018 and a hard freeze in spring 2019, which greatly reduced yields. Farmers have been miserably failed, she said, by what she calls gaping holes in the U.S. Department of Agriculture safety nets. “The crop insurance has failed us,” she said. “The disaster program is failing us. Loans we can’t get. Every turn has been a brick wall.”

She sent a six-page letter dated June 20 to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., requesting they tour the area to see the conditions themselves. She’s also been trying to reach Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, among others, to no avail. “Normally productive soil, now brown powder, is causing livestock to suffocate in high-wind dirt storms, amidst thousands of acres of failed winter wheat crops with no moisture to plant 2020 spring crops and even jeopardizing 2021 crops,” she wrote.

In Baca County, the furthest southeast county of Colorado, the area with the worst drought, Kevin Larson, superintendent and research scientist at Plainsman Research Center, said there’s been more prevented planting than he’s ever seen before. In dryland farming areas, which aren’t irrigated, most farmers simply didn’t plant crops. The research center did plant, but nothing emerged. There’s also not enough moisture to grow grass to feed cattle and fires are a big danger.

“There’s going to be very little income from the crops, because there’s not going to be any,” he said. “So things are going to be even tougher than they’ve been. There’s no doubt.”

Thomas Grasmick, vice chairman of the Prowers Board of County Commissioners, and other members of the board are doing what they can to call attention to the problem, he said. At the end of June they sent a letter to the governor, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture and state lawmakers, echoing Hixson’s request to tour the area. “It’s terrible,” he said of the drought conditions and pointing to 10-day forecasts of around 100 degrees. “If we don’t get some needed moisture, we’re going to lose our fall crops (too).”

The area has had some small amounts of rain, Hixson said, adding that the rain is always followed by wind, which evaporates the moisture immediately. As a result, there hasn’t been any significant rain since July of last year and is way below average rainfall numbers.

CHANGES NEEDED

First, Hixson said, she wants to get the attention of Colorado’s governor, so he can contact the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Perdue about the situation. Farmers in half the state of Colorado are in economical distress due to the drought. “Where is he?” she asked of the governor. “We need his help and attention.”

She also called for help from the farmers’ associations, such as the Farm Bureau and associations for corn, wheat and sorghum growers. They need to lobby for help, immediately, she said.

Ultimately, her goal is to get the attention of Perdue. She feels he needs to understand there are gaping holes in the safety net for farmers.

In late April, the USDA had already designated Prowers County, as well as contiguous counties Baca, Bent and Kiowa, plus Greeley, Hamilton and Stanton counties in Kansas, as primary natural disaster areas, meaning producers might be eligible for USDA Farm Service Agency emergency loans. But those emergency loans have one-year payback terms. “What farmer can pay back a loan, with multi-year crop failures, and no moisture to plant another crop?” she asked, adding that farmers still haven’t gotten payment for the 2018 drought relief program and crop insurance premiums are inadequate and expensive.

In late May, the U.S. Small Business Administration announced eligible businesses in multiple Colorado counties and one neighboring Kansas county would be eligible to apply for federal disaster loans to offset economic losses due to drought. The low-interest loans have a maximum repayment term of 30 years but are only available to nonfarm businesses. “So the shoe store can go get a drought loan but the farmers and ranchers can’t,” Hixson said. “We’re told to go to the USDA to apply for a one-year loan.”

Hixson believes USDA emergency loans should be structured as SBA disaster loans, with 30-year payback terms. In addition, the loans should have 60-day priority loan processing, rather than the nine months it takes for USDA loans.

She also sees issues with how COVID-19 relief has has been handled, leaving farmers out in the cold in certain areas. The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program left out the hardest hit producers in southeast Colorado, she said. The payment formula was based on bushels on hand on Jan. 15, however, most farmers sell immediately after harvest so didn’t have any bushels on hand. In addition, hard red winter wheat was excluded from the program.

Then there’s the Paycheck Protection Program, a SBA loan to help businesses keep workers employed during the COVID-19 crisis. Farmers weren’t eligible because they generally pay workers as contractors, not as employees.

Pouring salt in the wound were the recent reports of the millions of dollars paid out to Kanye West’s clothing and shoe company, Yezzy, through that program. “That is what is so, so upsetting,” she said. “When the government is handing out trillions, literally trillions of dollars, we can’t get a dime.”

One bright spot is that the government does have the ability to respond quickly, as COVID-19 proved. She’d like to see U.S. lawmakers harness that and quickly consider modifications to the programs named above, as well as inadequacies in USDA crop insurance, “top up” payments for crop insurance, Conservation Reserve Program and more. “They can get things done quickly when they put their minds to it,” she said. ❖

— Jessen is a freelance writer living in Minnesota with her nurse husband and daughter. They recently settled down after more than three years living a travel lifestyle, thanks to her husband’s travel nurse job. She can be reached at  hollyjessenmedia@gmail.com.


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