Farmers like warm, predictable spring weather and getting out into their fields early to plant their crops.
This spring, they’ve had neither.
“The spring started probably three weeks later than normal just because of the winter we had,” said Fred Hopkin, a local grower in the Penrose area southeast of Powell. “It was cold, we had a lot of snow, and it took a long while for that to go away.”
Finally the snow melted, and farmers headed out into their fields in hopes of making up for lost time. But weekly rain or snowstorms added to the delay instead.
“Every week, by Thursday or Friday, the ground was drying out and we were just getting a good momentum going, then it would rain on Saturday or Sunday, and we’d have to wait again to get back out into the fields,” Hopkin said. “So, in addition to winter, we’ve had more spring delays than what we typically have here.”
On the bright side, barley that was planted before the spring rains is up and doing great, he said.
“It’s basically grass, and grass loves water. It tends to thrive in cool, damp conditions, so growers that had their barley in early and got in on moisture are probably in better shape than in a normal year. So that’s a silver lining” to the storm clouds, Hopkin said.
Alfalfa seed is planted after the barley is in; sugar beets are next.
“Spring alfalfa and sugar beets kind of come together,” he said. “We typically finish planting beets by the 20th of April,” Hopkin said Tuesday. “I just finished today, so that’s a delay of three weeks.”
The beets will grow well, regardless of the weather, Hopkin said. “If they’re planted three weeks later than usual, they have three weeks less to grow (before fall harvest) so we expect reduced yield on the beets this year.”
Corn is next, and beans come last. Both need plenty of hot weather and sunshine, and enough time to mature before the first freeze of the fall, Hopkin said.
“With beans, if they’re planted late, and the later they go, the greater the risk of frost in the fall. They need to be harvested before fall freeze,” he said.
“Corn is like beans. It just has to have so much growing season. ... Any delays in the spring increase the chance that that plant won’t be mature by harvest time.”
Ric Rodriguez, who farms in the Heart Mountain area, said it has been a challenging spring.
“Nobody wants to complain about moisture, but we certainly have had more than our share,” he said.
Rodriguez farms are about 10 days behind, but their delay is not as bad as some, he added.
“We dry out a little quicker and tend to do a little more fall work than most guys, so I’m in pretty good shape. The barley is looking real good.”
“We’re still in pretty good shape as far as the sugar beets,” as well, he said. “If you got your beets in the ground, a little rain is good for them. It keeps the ground soft and helps them grow.”
Bean planting will begin in about two weeks, he said.
“I’m anticipating a better than average crop on my side, but then, I’m an optimist,” Rodriguez said.
“The sun always comes up the next morning, I guess, so you have to have hope for that. You have no control over the weather. Mother Nature’s going to give you and take you.”
Jeremiah Vardiman, Park County educator for the University of Wyoming Extension, said many farmers are behind this spring.
“We’ve had a fairly significant rain, and it just keeps backing us up,” he said.
Vardiman said statewide statistics show about 37 percent of the beet crop has been planted statewide, where about 66 percent would be planted in an average year. However, Rodriguez said about 90 percent of beets have been planted in the area of the northern Big Horn Basin served by the Lovell sugar plant.
The increased moisture leads to concerns about diseases in the plants, particularly diseases caused by fungus, Vardiman said.
“Another compounding factor is weed control,” he said. “Everybody is behind in weed control. The rain, wind and the frequency of the storms is providing limited opportunities for getting out in the field for weed control. We’re seeing huge flushes of weeds that are difficult to control now. I’ve seen blue mustard, with a purple flower, all the way down to Worland. You see it along the highway.”
Hopkin said agriculture markets are fairly tight right now, and this spring’s delays add to that stress for farmers.
Despite a general sense of concern, “I think the biggest frustration is, it’s just been difficult to build any momentum. You just get going and then you’re shut down for four or five days. You just want to be out in the field getting your crop in,” Hopkin said.
He said one neighbor summed it up as, “This year, I wish I could have a do-over.”
But Hopkin said he’s not overly distressed.
“It’s just the nature of it,” he said. “We’ll get through it. Kind of on an annual basis, there’s quite often something that comes with some concern. This is maybe a bigger bump than we’ve had in a lot of years. But it’s not as severe as something like a hailstorm, to put it in perspective.”
Rodriguez noted that the abundant moisture over the winter and this spring have greened up the surrounding desert.
“All the sagebrush hills around here are sure green,” he said. “I’ve never seen it so green in the Sand Coulee area between Powell and Clark.”
But, he added, “that could change in a day. It will be 90 degrees here before you know it.”