Wet Weather Likely Too Little, Too Late For Alaska Farmers

The severe drought that’s gripped the Interior for most of the summer finally broke over the weekend. Rains fell throughout the region for the first time in some areas since early July. But it’s probably too little and too late for most farmers, especially those who own livestock, who’ve have had to resort to costly measures like irrigating and importing hay from Canada and the Lower 48.

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The rain cleared the air of smoke from the Mississippi wildfire still smoldering near Delta. But it didn’t bring much relief to the area’s farmers.

Bryce Wrigley is a Delta barley grower and president of the Alaska Farm Bureau. And he says the season started with the opposite problem — cold, wet weather that delayed planting.

“We actually started planting on the day we normally quit,” Wrigley said. “And so, it was just that late. I mean, on the 17th of May, we had now.”
The cool spell was followed by a stretch of 90-degree days in early June.

Other than a couple of rains earlier in the summer, pretty much the only water that’s fallen onto the area’s farmlands has come from irrigation systems, like the one that Doug McCollum set up on about 300 acres of hay east of town.

A few miles away at the family’s meatpacking plant, McCollum’s daughter, Jeannie, sums up the economic toll that this summer’s drought is taking on the business.

“All I can say it’s a crisis,” she said. “There is a crisis … shortages of enough feed for the livestock.”

Jeannie McCollum says the business tries to maintain a two-year supply of hay for their 400 head of cattle, and sell the surplus to horse owners around the state to cover the cost of fertilizer, which runs to about $100,000 a year. That’s the sort of savvy that’s helped them to do pretty well in a business where the profit margins are always slim.

This year, the McCollums are just trying to grow enough to avoid hauling in hay from Canada and the Lower 48 — a costly fall-back plan that many other farmers in the Interior have had to resort to, along with others in the Mat-Su, which also has been hit by drought.

“It’s cost-prohibitive, with the cost of fuel, to run to Canada, to get some feed,” McCollum said. “Potentially, at some point, maybe some of these other people (who) produce hay, some of them getting only a third of what they normally get, it’s a fair chance that some of the other people who are producing hay are going to have to tell their clients that, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to find another source to get your hay.’”

But another Delta-area area farmer, Don Lintelman, is already bringing in truckloads of feed for his 120 cows that provide milk for his Northern Lights Dairy, one of two in the state. Lintelman, who’s farmed in the area for 44 years, says it’s very expensive, but he has no choice.

“We got over 600 acres, and we only probably got about a fourth of the crop that we usually get,” he said.

Phil Kaspari, the agricultural extension agent with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service in Delta, is working with Lintelman to help him get a low-interest loan to help offset the cost of buying imported feed.

Kaspari says Lintelman on Friday became the first Alaska farmer this season to be given assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program.

Kaspari believes agency officials approved Lintelman’s request, and will likely grant others’, because they’ve realized the impact of this year’s drought.

“It seems to really be coming to light, more and more,  that we have to take some action to avert a real disaster,” Kaspari said.

The drought has also been hard on farmers cultivating other crops, both in the Interior and to a lesser extent in the Mat-Su Valley, the state’s other major agriculture area. Franci Havemeister, the director of the state Division of Agriculture, says that because the Tanana Valley has gotten less than half of the usual summer rainfall, farmers here are harvesting only about a third of their average yield. And she says that has hurt them economically.

“When you’re looking at a yield of 30 percent, you’re looking at a drastic shortfall when it comes to revenue,” Havemeister said.

Havemeister says she agrees with the gloomy prediction that farmers here have drawn — that the weekend rains, while welcome, are just too little, too late.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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