For many of us, the post-COVID return to normal is still largely an aspiration. While most of Colorado is enjoying not having to wear masks in public places and finding socializing readily available, parts of society are grappling with changes in workforce, supply chains and certainty of plans for “normal” when looking into the future.
In May, I outlined how a larger than average snowpack (163% of 30 year snow water equivalent) was a welcomed departure from normal for farmers in the South Platte Basin in 2021, but how a rainy spring set back plans for timely planting and thus on-schedule supply of local produce.
That supply of local produce in Northern Colorado is now seeing the effects of planting delays with gaps in supply of cool season crops and slower than average crop progress in warm season crops.
With record heat from recent “heat domes” in the western states, produce crop production in key areas of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California is likely also off its regular harvest schedule and total yield, not to mention the agony and sometimes danger to farm workers in the fields when daily temperatures reach well above body temperature. Worker safety adaptations to avoid heat stress, imposed by farm managers, can cause a narrowing of work hours, avoiding heat-of-day time periods and restrict the ability to harvest and produce crops.
For crops, some of the long-term resilience answer is improved genetics for heat tolerance. Fruiting crops are most sensitive as high temperatures during pollination can affect the viability of pollen. No pollen, no fruit.
With farm worker health paramount, produce farmers have tools, such as the OSHA Heat Index Tool app, to monitor heat index stress and make management decisions – when to work, when to take breaks, shade, water, etc. – and ensure field work, while hot, is doable and safe from day to day.
While it seems like our nation’s food supply is something we can take for granted, stable and guaranteed, it is in fact fragile given it is mostly done outdoors and at the mercy of weather. And that weather continues to show more extreme patterns. In addition to heat, Western Slope tree fruit farmers are noting tree death from the February 2021 extreme cold. The July 6 Drought Monitor shows most areas west of the continental divide have some degree of drought, with Colorado’s tree fruit region in exceptional drought.
Crops producers in the Colorado River and S. Platte River basins are concerned with the current Lake Mead water level 160 feet below full and the triggering of the Drought Contingency Plan with other Western states. When the plan goes into effect for the Colorado River it can curtail irrigation for farmers in that basin and curtail transmountain diversion of water to Northern Colorado, impacting available water for farms in the South Platte Basin. All things are connected.
Policy also contributes to the fragility of agriculture. Farmers are also now concerned with the outcomes of Colorado Senate Bill 087, the Agriculture Workers’ Rights Act. The act directs the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to promulgate rules to set the hourly threshold for overtime pay to farm workers no later than Jan. 31, 2022. Agricultural and other employers in Colorado are exempt from paying overtime (see COMPS #37 orders from CDLE). While there are compelling arguments from both sides of the issue, farmers are concerned about the economic and business impacts added to the production and marketing adjustments they made due to COVID in 2020, in addition to the stresses from the weather-related issues mentioned above.
If you enjoy local produce, for all the stresses and threats to farmers, it is important to vote with your dollars to keep it viable and consider how we can help build resilience into an occupation/lifestyle that must manage constant challenges to feed us.
By Adrian Card, Colorado State University Extension. Adrian is the agriculture extension agent for Colorado State University Extension. For more information on agriculture, visit extension.colostate.edu/agriculture.