There is a lot on the farmer's plate as the spring season signifies the dawn of a new crop year across the nation. For many, it’s a time of hope after struggling in recent years at the hands of a myriad of problems including low crop prices, elevated input costs, major fire and hurricane disasters, and the ongoing problem of localized drought, all of which (especially in combination) could make or break a good farm year.
The start to spring each year, however, is without question a special time for those that make their living off the land. It's a time of year to levitate toward hope versus despair, to choose aspiration, ambition and belief over fear, disbelief, and hopelessness. Spring is a time to set aside the disappointments of the past, the failures that challenged us, and look instead with anticipation to the hope of a new, fresh start in 2018.
If you think about it, even when a farmer has a good year, he or she feels like it could have been better. And after suffering a bad year, he or she is always aware it could have been worse. The hope of spring seems to represent an annual rallying point for those who share the culture of farming. Those who work the land are generally more resilient to hard work, disappointment and even setback. It's goes with the territory; the bad with the good of farm life.
This year, however, may be a little different for many U.S. farmers who are generally cautiously optimistic as the new farm year gets underway. There are several major issues brewing that could greatly impact the industry for many years to come.
Forefront in the mind of producers is the expectations for a new farm bill and how that may play out with hoped-for improvements in the safety net. But it is far from the only issue of importance to consider.
The struggle over the SNAP budget and its relationship to USDA may well slow down the farm bill process. Along those same lines, is Congress going to enforce previous legislation that disallows budgeting for things like a farm safety net unless the move is offset by budget reductions in other federally-funded programs like healthcare, Medicare or the Defense budget?
Then there are also serious and growing concerns about possible deteriorating relations with both Canada and Mexico — especially the latter. Is it possible the President's wall with Mexico will be paid for at the expense of agriculture and other industries that depend on trade across our southern border?
Most of the legislative issues related to agriculture cannot easily be changed by farmers, in spite of the pressures and influence of farm groups through industry lobbying efforts. While some lawmakers may be friends to the industry, often they are unable to find enough support from fellow legislators to support their efforts. But farm bills and trade wars may be the least of our worries as the year moves forward.
Turning up the heat on farmers, or the real elephant in the room
The bigger issue facing farmers this year may be an escalating threat from nature; the same problem that has plagued them and their fathers and grandfathers since the beginning of time — drought.
Weather forecasters and climate analysts are now pointing to the strong possibility of increasing dry conditions across much of the nation, especially in the Southwest. Oklahoma currently is experiencing the worst drought in the High Plains according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, but not far behind is a large portion of eastern New Mexico and much of the Texas Panhandle.
Reports of declining crops, especially winter wheat, have been widely reported. In New Mexico, about three-quarters of the winter wheat crop is reported to be in poor to very poor condition as meaningful moisture has been scarce. Along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, the irrigation allotment will be less than half of what farmers received last year.
Officials with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority have already issued water-use restrictions in the state's largest metropolitan area. Officials are limiting residential watering during daylight hours and warn restrictions may tighten even further as summer approaches.
It's not just farmers and utility providers that are concerned about water shortages this year. The U.S. Forest Service is reporting excessively dry conditions across most of New Mexico and the Southwest are intensifying and warn it could be a perfect recipe for a potentially severe fire season. This year fire crews have responded to more than 140 fires that have charred roughly 50 square miles. State forestry officials say 80 of the fires were reported in March alone.
Weather forecasters in Colorado Springs are reporting mountain snowpack still lags for the season, despite recent late-season snows. It is estimated that snow over the winter is at about 70 percent of the norm, prompting federal forecasters to project drought will continue across much of the southwestern U.S. into the summer months, threatening agriculture.
Globally, drought is threatening both the U.S. and the Argentine grain belts, and dry conditions have been reported in many other parts of the world as well.
Weather forecasters in Albuquerque, N.M., say the best hope for significant moisture may not come until the monsoon season begins in July when moisture from both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific can stream into the mountainous areas of the west and southwest.
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, traditionally where the first crops of the year are planted each year because of their southern latitude and mild winters, excessively dry conditions have already forced cotton and grain farmers to irrigate their fields.
Texas AgriLife IPM Specialist Danielle Sekula reported last week that some farmers have already started their second irrigation on recently emerged cotton fields. The lack of moisture also helped ramp up pest pressure in some fields, specifically fleahoppers in cotton that is squaring. Low populations of spidermites have been reported, and Sekula says if conditions remain dry, she expects that trend to continue and perhaps intensify.
Sugarcane aphids in grain sorghum has also been reported in low numbers, especially fields located near the border.
Last month Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon warned that some areas across the southwest region have received little or no rain over the last five months and said the forecast is calling for little relief in sight.