Drought scourges Utah farms

Utah's last winter has been warmest and driest since late 1800s, before it was a state

For decades, fifth-generation farmer Neal Briggs has looked east to the mighty Wasatch range and seen the promise of a verdant future.

Each spring, he has picked out snow-capped peaks along this westernmost edge of the Rockies to predict the amount of seasonal runoff — or free water — that will choke streams and flow into his sprawling fields of wheat and alfalfa.

Now, as a historic drought lingers, Briggs looks to the mountains and sees mostly bare rock. And down in his fields he sees another scourge: a plague of insects.

"Survival now depends on how clean a farmer has kept his nose," said Briggs, 59, who cultivates 300 acres half an hour northwest of Salt Lake City. "A farmer who's heavily in debt probably won't make it."

This year, the state suffered its warmest and least-snowy winter since the late 1800s, when Utah was still a territory. The lowest-elevation snowpack has melted, and most of the higher altitudes will be quick to follow.

"This is one of those years farmers will tell their grandkids about," said Utah state hydrologist Randall Julander. "About just how dry it was and how bad it was."

This is how bad it is: Drought now grips 40% of the West, with no end in sight: globally, nine of the 10 warmest years recorded since 1880 have occurred since 2000, officials say.

Though Utah's farm economy is dwarfed by California's — agricultural sales for 2013 reached $1.8 billion, compared with $46.4 billion in the Golden State — officials have began to ration water, and Briggs and other farmers worry about more cutbacks this summer.

Not only has a state water report characterized 2015 as "a dead skunk," but one Utah water strategist warns the ongoing dry conditions are "the new normal."

Last month, federal officials declared that eight drought-racked Utah counties could ask for emergency loans. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has empathized with the state: "Our heart goes out to those Utah farmers and ranchers."

Streams and reservoirs are running between 10% and 40% of normal. A 1-to-100 scale that state officials use to rank their volume shows a low of 3 and an average of 25. "Twenty-five is bad," Julander said. "Three is a picture of a dead cow with a couple of buzzards on it."

Briggs sees another troubling legacy from Utah's weird winter: an infestation of killer aphids.

Russian wheat and pea aphids, which normally freeze in the winter, survived this year to begin a spring assault on farmland. Briggs didn't know the speck-like insects were ravaging his fields until he spotted tens of thousands of predator ladybugs drawn to the feast — making the fields a sea of green awash with red polka dots.

"I thought, 'Maybe we'll get by,'" he recalled, sitting in the kitchen of his farmhouse, dressed in blue jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. "You know, let nature do what nature does."

A week later, he stood in his fields and nearly wept: Even the vast numbers of ladybugs — each can eat 2,000 aphids in its short lifetime — couldn't stave off the pest. The aphids were spreading, eating a swath through both his wheat and alfalfa crops, injecting a toxin that dwarfs and finally kills the plants.

One morning, Utah State University extension agent James Barnhill stood in Briggs' kitchen showing off examples of sick wheat sprouts he'd taken from the fields outside. Briggs had sprayed the alfalfa crop with an insecticide that killed the aphids but spared the ladybugs. Now most of the farmers have the upper hand with their alfalfa crops, but aphids still ran rampant on his wheat.

Using a magnifying glass, Barnhill counted up to 30 aphids on each wheat sample. He said Briggs was among numerous farmers fighting the pest, thanks to the drought. "Every now and then, we get scared to death over water levels," he said. "This year, we're scareder than most."

Briggs, a plain-spoken father of six who farms with two of his sons, has watched streams grow more depleted each spring. Even so, he stays hopeful.

"We farmers are the eternal optimists — even if we have a bad year, we figure the next year will be a good one," said Briggs, president of the local Davis County Farm Bureau. "Even if we have five bad years in a row, we're still looking for that next good year."

While his wheat and alfalfa are less water-consuming than other crops, Briggs has seen other farmers switch out water-guzzling onions and corn for less-profitable bets such as hay. But they can only do that for so many years, he predicts, before their accounting ledgers will go from black to red.

On drives through the bedroom community of 25,000, he has seen homeowners, businesses and golf courses watering their lawns even when it rains, so there's enough blame to go around. So far, Briggs has seen little suggestion in this ag-friendly state that farmers are wasting Utah's water: "I hope it never comes to that."

Meanwhile, Utah keeps its eyes toward the sky.

"This year will be a train wreck if we're not blessed by Mother Nature with some moisture and the right summer temperatures," said Randy Parker, chief executive of the Utah Farm Bureau.

This month, a show-stopping rainstorm raged for two days straight, dumping 2 inches of precipitation on land that averages only 17 inches a year. Briggs recalls rushing out to check his backyard water gauge and texting his son Aaron with each significant rise.

"Yeah!" came his son's responses. "Woo-hoo!"

In recent years, the suburbs have closed in on Briggs' farm, with some of his fields surrounded on three sides by housing tracts. His land is now worth at least $5 million, and developers knock on his door with offers. But Briggs refuses, even if friends and neighbors think he's off his rocker.

With his conservative style, Briggs has paid off his farm equipment and has driven a school bus for three decades to secure health insurance for his family.

He's not going anywhere.

Farming has always been a gamble. If it's not the drought one year, it's plummeting prices or soaring taxes the next. Through it all, Briggs says, he prefers the lifestyle of the farm and says his children have been his most rewarding crop.

Inside the spartan kitchen, Briggs, his wife, Caroline, and Aaron talk about the future — one that presumably will not include much Wasatch range spring snowmelt.

"Despite any drought, we're farmers and we'll continue to farm," Caroline said. "It's our life. Our legacy."

Added her husband: "And it's a good legacy."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Twitter: @jglionna

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