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Drought continues in Colorado as 2021 crops come in

By
Kathleen Thomas Gaspar

Seeing 2020 in the review mirror has been a welcomed vantage point on several levels, not the least of which was the crop season for Colorado.

While 2021 doesn’t come with the exact same witch’s brew of issues, the ongoing drought has been curtailing irrigation. Transportation has been complicated by Mother Nature as well.

Last year, in addition to dealing with COVID-19 and its restrictions, growers in the Centennial State were beset by drought and hit by record-setting temperature extremes, and the state finished its 2020 vegetable production season on an “average” or lower note.

“Overall, for the vegetable crop — mostly eastern Colorado — it was an average year,” said Marilyn Bay Drake, executive director of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “Drought continued to plague Colorado, particularly southern Colorado, impacting those with limited water options. The big story on the Western Slope was the late spring hard freeze, which took out the majority of the tree fruit crop. Those with a crop reported good prices, but the lower volume was economically devastating to most.”

CFVGA President Bruce Talbott, who is a peach/wine grape orchardist on the Western Slope, concurred, “The Colorado peach crop was at about 15 percent of tree capacity,” he said. “Additionally, we experienced record cold temperatures Oct. 26 and 27, breaking the old record by about 15 degrees. This followed record or near record high temperatures the preceding couple of weeks, resulting in very little acclimation coming into fall.”

As a result, he said, “Most cherries and wine grapes ended up with no 2021 crop and many peach trees have died since or are so weak that they will need to be replaced.  Many other perennial crops were damaged to varying degrees.”

Talbott continued, “We never want to freeze out because we lose revenue, markets and labor continuity. However, if there was ever a year to sit on the sidelines for Western Colorado, 2020 may have been it.  The obvious COVID-19 disruptions of marketing channels were a major factor, and in addition forest fires and smoke levels discouraged tourism and many direct market opportunities.”

This year, Drake said in mid-August, “Drought is even more acute in 2021 in southern Colorado. Northern Colorado has had some moisture, but as all produce crops in Colorado rely on irrigation, the shortage of irrigation water, largely due to non-farm purchases of irrigation rights over the past two or three decades, is putting pressure on everyone. Some orchards reported no water after early summer. Many farms in northern Colorado will be without irrigation beginning mid-August, the earliest I’ve ever heard of.”

Talbott said fruit volume is down this year, sweet corn has encountered weaker markets and logistics have become even more difficult because of mudslides.

“Water is again a major factor, with some watersheds running dry in early to mid-August,” he explained. “Drought accompanied by last year’s cold damage may result in the permanent removal of some orchards and vineyards, especially in Delta County. Fruit volume is down due to tree stress from last year, and sweet corn is dealing with a weak market, resulting in some fields not being harvested.” Still, he said, “Quality of what does exist seems to be good.”

Add to that the closure of one of the state’s primary east-west interstates, I-70.

“There are additionally logistics challenges due to mudslides where some of last year’s forest fires occurred and the resulting intermittent closure of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon,” Talbott said.

“Trucks have been scarce anyway, and to add extra detours, even compensated, on slow winding roads has caused many to shun Western Colorado, especially for trips east,” Talbott concluded.

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