The economic cycle that kick-started the Great Depression arrived in near tandem with a weather pattern that also created the Dust Bowl. The pain of that era remains frozen in images of black and white, including photographs of long lines of men waiting in lines for soup or jobs or in sepia-toned pictures of tumbleweeds and topsoil blowing aimlessly and endlessly across the plains.
Today, reverberations of what happened decades ago percolate across Colorado and many parts of the country where each day the lack of moisture is forcing more counties to declare themselves as disasters. The government says more than 1,500 U.S. counties are now under this designation.
While things, as farmers and ranchers know so well, could always be worse, Colorado is holding reasonably steady but in a delicate balance. “The southern part of the state has suffered for two years now,” says state Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar.
Thanks to a heavier than expected spring run-off, the northern part of the state has fared better, near normal, in fact. “It softened the impact,” Salazar says. “Most reservoirs are full.” However, he says, they are also lower than in normal years.
It will be months before the state can accurately calculate the farming and ranching losses from the lack of rainfall. Salazar is simply hoping that this year’s red ink runs in a softer shade and in less abundance than a year ago.
An official state agriculture analysis estimated “the (2011) drought resulted in more than $110 million in lost economic activity throughout the Rio Grande and Arkansas Basins.” It also says “the drought resulted in roughly $110 million dollars in additional feed costs.”
In a normal year, Colorado ranchers would now be thinking about moving herds and to fatten them up over the winter. This year, they are just thinning them. The cost of hay, another casualty of the drought, is just too high. In a normal year hay might cost “$150-$200 a ton,” Salazar says. “You can’t afford to feed $300-$500 hay in the winter time and recoup your money.”
But as ranchers sell off portions of their herd, another variable comes in to play. Too many cows in feedlots create a surplus. In the short-term, consumers will benefit with lower beef prices. That, however, will only be temporary as other drought-related factors come into play.
The U.S.D.A. says no crop has been hit as hard by the current drought as corn, a staple in animal feed and also an important ingredient in countless supermarket food products. Current estimates suggest that nearly a third the nation’s corn is lost and will simply be plowed under. The result will be higher food prices.
Consumers can expect to pay higher prices for beef, dairy, eggs and pork. Beef prices are expected to increase by as much as 5 percent while pork prices will rise the least, 2.5 percent-3-5 percent. Other foodstuffs, ranging from peanut butter to cereals, are expected to jump 3 percent-4 percent.
While Colorado has been impacted by drought, Salazar is pleased that things have not been nearly as serious as in other states. The state’s big money crops — adjusted for the northern-southern impacts of the drought — which includes corn, wheat and potatoes will come in close to normal. But another year or two of drought is not easy to think about.
Weather patterns that have produced more U.S. cracked earth than in a generation are something no one wants to think about. Unfortunately, it is not just the U.S. that is experiencing changes in weather patterns. Extreme weather has also hit in extreme forms in Russia, China, India and Europe in the form of unanticipated flooding, lighter monsoon rains or other weather anomalies.
While some are attributing this to climate change — everything from heating ocean temperatures that result in everything from polar ice cap melting to El Niño or La Niña, which cause extreme changes in rainfalls — Salazar does not, at least entirely.
“We’ve had cycles like this before,” he says, pointing to the Dust Bowl days and also a period in the early 50’s when droughts hit Colorado harder than even today.
“The trend, though, and the severity is what concerns me,” says Fleur Ferro, Professor of Biology at Community College of Denver. “I definitely think it’s related to climate change.”
Ferro says in the “mid-latitudes,” where Colorado lies, things are getting drier and drier and the moisture is moving “to the tropics.” When there are changes in temperatures, she says, ocean currents slow, jet streams patterns remain stalled instead of moving in a normal, predictable way and the results are felt worldwide. “I think the drought and climate change go hand in hand.”
While a majority of scientists believe as Ferro does, there has been no official designation that climate change is the reason for the current drought. But there is no argument that over the last several summers, weather patterns have become more topical discussions.
Extreme temperatures that have significant impacts on crop yields have shocked the farming and ranching communities in all corners of the country. In places ranging from Little Rock to Minneapolis, temperatures this summer have broken all existing records. In fact, July temperatures in the U.S. were hotter than any time since U.S. weather data have been taken going back to 1985.
If, as some suggest, the changes in weather are normal, things should stabilize. However, climate change advocates, including Ferro, believe that we might be in a pattern that won’t be changing soon. Higher populations worldwide and the burning of more fossil fuels, she says, will only add to the current pattern.