Colorado farmers fight rain, hail, pests to harvest corn, melon, peaches
Late summer is prime time for Colorado produce that people look forward to for months and typically the end of the harvest for one of the state’s biggest crops: wheat. This year, though, rain, hail and pest infestations are making for a bumpier-than-usual road to market.
Soaking rains held up the harvest of wheat and melons and hail pummeled the plants and produce on the Eastern Plains, while an onslaught by earworms hit as the harvest of Olathe sweet corn got underway on the Western Slope.
And while the widespread rains washed away most of Colorado’s drought, farmers abandoned at least 20% of the state’s wheat crop because the strain of the past three dry years meant some plants just didn’t take hold before the moisture could help.
On the other hand, in one more example of this season’s wild weather, some wheat growers are pulling in record yields thanks to all the downpours.
“Coming into this spring, we ended up actually destroying about 35% (of the wheat) and we probably should’ve destroyed a little more, based on the way things looked at the time. But we didn’t because we needed to keep some seed,” said Justin Lewton, whose family has farmed north of Bennett since 1919.
Then the rain let loose later this spring.
“From that point, when we started getting rains, our potential skyrocketed from zero to some farmers having a record year,” Lewton said. “We are not quite lucky enough to have that. On the harvested acres, we’re going to be slightly above our 10-year average, maybe right at it, after we total everything up.”
Things went the other way for Lamar-area farmer John Stulp, who, along with other wheat producers in southeastern Colorado, had been dealing the past few years with a severe drought.
“We had some moisture there in May that caused us to survive and then some more in June that was making for a good crop,” said Stulp, the former Colorado agriculture commissioner. “Then we encountered hail in late June, just ahead of wheat harvest. We went from having probably an average to above-average crop to a kind of salvage operation.”
He is working with his crop insurance company to determine the extent of the losses.
West of Lamar in the Rocky Ford area, synonymous with Colorado’s famed cantaloupes, rain and hail have delayed the harvest and damaged the fruit.
“The monsoon season usually starts in mid-July, late July and then it stops and we’re dry for most of the season. This year I can’t remember when it started, but it hasn’t stopped,” Michael Hirakata of Hirakata Farms said in a recent interview.
The watermelon crop looks good, but Hirakata thinks as much as half of the cantaloupes could be lost because of hail and rot from sitting in water.
“We are going to have cantaloupes, but it’s going to be a little bit later and hopefully the freeze doesn’t come,” Hirakata, a fifth-generation farmer, said. “As we get delayed more and more, the freeze inches ever closer.”
When it rains, it often hails
What farmers along the Front Range and on the Eastern Plains have experienced on the ground, Becky Bolinger, assistant state climatologist, sees in the statistics.
“From a Colorado perspective, the difference between last year and this year for the northeast corner has been night and day,” Bolinger said in an email.
In 2022, parts of northeastern Colorado from May through October ranked in the top 10 driest years out of the 128-year record, Bolinger said. Southeastern Colorado was a little bit better.
This year, a significant portion of the Eastern Plains received record moisture and temperatures were cooler, compared to above-average temperatures all summer in 2022, Bolinger said. Many crops have benefitted from the moisture.
“But it’s a double-edged sword. All that extra moisture has brought lots of damaging thunderstorms producing hail and tornadoes,” Bolinger added.
That fact that as much as a quarter of the state’s wheat crop could end up abandoned because of poor quality while the total harvest is expected to come in slightly below the average of 70 million bushels shows how beneficial the rains were in certain spots, said Brad Erker, executive director of the trade association Colorado Wheat.
“We’ve got some record yields in parts of northeast Colorado because we had almost a year’s worth of precipitation in a six- to eight-week period leading up to harvest,” Erker said.
He has heard of yields as high as 80 to 100 bushels of wheat per acre. An average yield is roughly 35 to 40 bushels per acre. Approximately 90% of Colorado’s wheat is dryland, meaning it’s not irrigated.
In 2022, with the drought still in force, the statewide harvest was just 35 million bushels. Colorado typically ranks in the middle of the country’s top 10 wheat-producing states, but dropped to No. 17 last year. Last year’s crop was the lowest in terms of bushels in 63 years, Erker said.
But this year’s abundance of moisture had its downsides. Erker said it’s rare for the harvest to stretch into August, but wheat was still being cut in northern Colorado the first two weeks of the month because it had been too wet to get into the fields.
About 3% of the crop was left to harvest Tuesday, Erker said.
Peaches and corn
“The weather has been quite different from what you guys are seeing on the Eastern Slope,” said Reid Fishering, whose Mountain Quality Farms grows Olathe sweet corn in western Colorado.
The weather in the Uncompahgre Valley was cooler than normal in June and rainy, pushing the harvest back some. The weather heated up in July.
“With July being as hot as it was, I feel like we kind of caught up and we’re kind of almost in line with where I would expect to be,” Fishering said.
But Mother Nature wasn’t out of curveballs for the growers of Olathe sweet corn, one of the summer’s favorite treats. Earworms invaded fields of corn around Montrose, Delta and Olathe.
“We have dealt with it in the past. Other states have dealt with it more recently, but we’ve been able to manage for it in agriculture for quite some time,” Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s agriculture commissioner, said.
Moths lay eggs in the silk of corn. The larvae feed on the corn’s leaves and tassels as well as within the ears.
“We are working very closely with the Olathe growers to understand their slate of options,” Greenberg said.
Melissa Schreiner, an entomologist with the Colorado State University Extension Service, said the infestation has affected pretty much all the sweet corn growers. She said farmers haven’t publicly discussed their financial losses, but a few weeks ago business for those who pack the crates of corn for shipping was significantly down.
“One packing shed had expected to move 150,000 crates, but hadn’t even touched 30,000 crates,” said Schreiner, who’s based in Grand Junction.
The worm is one of the worst pests for agriculture and attacks other crops, such as cotton and tomatoes, Schreiner said, and this year’s assault is one of the worst in Colorado for a while. One of the possible causes Schreiner and others are exploring is a growing resistance to the pesticides and a confluence of other factors, including a later planting because of the weather followed by heat.
“I would say we have lost probably 40% of the yields. In some fields, it was so bad that it was not worth our time going in,” Fishering said.
The harvest has been slower and more labor intensive because the workers have to inspect the ears more carefully. Fishering said the pace has driven up labor costs in part due to new state overtime rules for agricultural work. He declined to say how much his costs have increased this year, but said the “double whammy” of crop losses and higher overtime pay means it won’t be a profitable season.
“But at the end of the day, you have to harvest it whatever the cost is,” Fishering said.
There will be enough corn to cover all the orders, he added. “We definitely appreciate the customer loyalty in our product.”
Peaches are another product that Coloradans don’t want to miss in the summer. Greenberg said it looks like the crop will be a good one this year.
“Every April everybody holds their breath for the whole month for the late freeze and we made it through. Peaches are coming off and making their way around the state,” Greenberg said.
Topp Fruits, which has four orchards between Paonia and Hotchkiss, fought frost this spring. Harrison Topp said some of the cherry crop was lost, but the peaches made it through relatively unscathed.
“The crop is looking as good as it’s looked in years, which is fantastic,” Topp said. “I don’t know if we’re quite a full crop. Some of our early varieties have been a little slower than we thought they would be. But the fruit quality is exceptional and I think we’re about to turn a corner and get into some really nice varieties.”
The operation, owned by the Topp, Nemer and Cannon families, sells peaches, cherries, apples and other fruit at farmers markets in the Denver area and Boulder as well as to retailers. Topp Fruits also sells to food banks through a state program.
Coming to a farm stand near you
Linda Palombo, owner and operator of Palombo Farms Market in Henderson, said almost all the produce is about two weeks behind this season.
“We should have all the peppers and roasting great guns,” Palombo said.
Joe Palombo, Linda’s son and partner, is in daily contact with his brother who grows peppers, corn, melons and other produce in the area. The fruits and vegetables got off to a later start because of the cool weather in June.
“Couple that with more water than we’ve seen in years, and it just slows down growth in general,” Joe Palombo said.
Despite the delays, Joe Palombo said the market’s shelves are full. The market stocks produce grown along the Front Range as well as peaches from Palisade and other western Colorado orchards and melons from Rocky Ford.
What Joe Palombo calls the cash crops — pickling cucumbers, chilis, corn and tomatoes — are starting to come in.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture and the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association have information about Colorado produce and farmers markets. The association’s website has a calendar that shows the prime time for various items.
Joe Palombo said traffic at the market is down a bit from the boom during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s when people had nothing to do but go to farmers markets. It was the thing to do and cooking at home was definitely more popular,” he said. “But we’ve retained a decent amount of those customers. We saw a good boom then and we’re holding onto it decently.”
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