Weather beaten and worn out

Crop market prices and precipitation conspire against working farmers

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The discontent and inconvenience rain will bring the city dweller is a miracle to the farmer. It brings hope for the season and the promise of a crop.

With one eye on the sky and the other on crop prices, farmers toil each day to make a living battling two things they have no control over -- the weather and the market.

"To be a farmer you have to have a memory that's 11 months long, because if it were 12, you'd stop," Craig resident Red Courtner said.

Gordon Grandbouche has been on one side or the other of a combine for 56 years, giving up fieldwork for an office as the owner of Craig Grain. The success of his business depends on the success of the farmers he serves.

Grandbouche remembers farming as a hard life -- little chance of making it from year to year and an even smaller chance of getting ahead.

"It's a tough business," he said. "You don't want to make many mistakes."

The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported the average annual wage of the agricultural industry in Moffat County at $13,361 in 1970 and $2,410 in 2000 -- a number some farmers hear and joke "that much?"

"You can pay for your house and raise a family, but there won't be any extras," Grandbouche said. "When all is said and done, you'll have a worn out man and worn out equipment, and that's not right for how hard he worked."

The ability to make a living has driven many out of the business.

Where there were 193 full-time farms or ranches in Moffat County in 1992, there were 184 in 1997, according to the latest statistics provided by the Colorado Agricultural Statistics service.

"In this area (agriculture) really is declining," Grandbouche said. "The number of acres in production are way down and the number of people in it is considerably down."

Four years of drought haven't helped matters, but hopeful farmers know there's a cycle to weather patterns just as there's a cycle to planting.

And they take it one year at a time.

Fall

The farmer's cycle begins -- and ends -- in the fall. That's the time of both planting and harvesting in a climate where the gods of rain are fickle.

The most popular non-irrigated crop in Moffat County is winter wheat, a crop that takes advantage of the snow and uses it as it melts.

Winter wheat is cut starting about August.

It's a tough time of year for the farmer, who works 14- to 16-hour days until the harvest is complete.

"It's not so critical if you miss a day in the fall, but when the harvest starts, you have to push real hard to get your crop out," Grandbouche said. "You can make a living, but per hour it's not very much."

Throughout the cutting, farmers are watching crop prices closer than ever, trying to determine the best time to sell.

There's very little they can do. Most farmers are bound by contracts or debts to sell their crop and most do it within six months of the cutting, Grandbouche said.

They cannot afford to hold on to a crop if prices are low.

"This is one of few industries that has very little control over the sale of its product and what (farmers) can get for it," Grandbouche said.

What should be a time for celebration is only the beginning. As soon as last year's crop is harvested, planting begins for next year's crop.

And that's still a gamble. Farmers gamble on what the weather will be like. Young wheat needs time to sprout, but it can't be planted too early.

"You know what you need to do, but you don't know if you'll get the weather to do it," Grandbouche said.

Winter

Most farmers take on other jobs during the winter to make ends meet. Grandbouche's two sons head to town, where they turn their hand at their second job as mechanics.

The average price of grain 28 years ago was $3.58 a bushel. Now it's at $3.56 a bushel.

Grandbouche said the price of everything else has increased -- gasoline, labor, equipment -- while the price of wheat has remained steady.

"I don't think there's another industry that could take the income from 28 years ago and live with it now," he said.

A winter job is sometimes the only way a farmer pays his bills and keeps his operation afloat, Grandbouche said.

But all farm activity doesn't stop during the winter. A farmer's thoughts are still on the weather, hoping for the heavy snowfall that will give his crops enough moisture to sprout following the spring melt.

Spring

Spring is a time of growth and rebirth. The farmer hopes the snow melts slowly so the ground can absorb as much moisture as possible and he dreads the dry wind that can whisk it away.

It's time to repair equipment and get it ready for field work.

As soon as the ground dries, it's time for the farmer to do everything he can to ensure moisture remains in the ground and isn't wasted on any growth but his own.

He'll beat brush if he plans to expand his planted acreage or begin the two-season long process of fighting weeds.

Farmers with irrigated fields may be ready to harvest spring wheat, oats or barley.

It's time for hope.

"Next year's going to be better," Grandbouche said. "Do you know how many times I've heard that?"

Summer

May brings the "summer fallow" -- and more long days. In the dryland method of farming, only half the acreage is planted with the rest remaining fallow or unplanted so the soil can build up nutrients and moisture.

It's important to make sure no weeds or grasses are allowed to grow on summer fallow land, because they use precious water reserved for young crops.

"The more water you conserve, the better off you are," Grandbouche said.

A farmer's job in the summer is to keep fallow ground weed free and prepare the remainder for planting.

"It's a lot of hours," Grandbouche said. "You go over the same ground a number of times."

Rain may slow the process, but it's never unwelcome.

"You never look forward to a dry day," Grandbouche said. "Not in this country where there aren't enough wet days."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, or at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com

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