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Crops stunted by cold weather

by Sharon Carter

Gardnerville farmer Fred Stodieck figures his fields have been in and out of dormancy so many times this spring he’s already on his third alfalfa crop.

“Nothing’s growing, it’s been too cold,” Stodieck, president of the Douglas County Farm Bureau, said Wednesday. “I’m still feeding hay. And it’s been so wet, I haven’t been able to get into the fields to plant new crops.”

Wet fields are also the reason Stodieck’s supplemental business of custom laser-grading fields for other farmers is backed up about a month and a half.

Most of Stodieck’s alfalfa crop goes to feed his own steers to get them up to slaughter weight. Normally, his animals would be grazing on pasture grass by this time and Stodieck would be planning to begin cutting his first hay crop in about a week. This year, with the heavy snowpack in the Sierra chilling the winds and hard frosts every few mornings, the pasture grass and alfalfa are just beginning to grow.

Stodieck said an abbreviated growing season would likely mean a smaller total harvest.

“It’ll affect the total tonnage, I’d expect somewhat less than what we normally get,” he said. “The good news is that with the snowpack in the mountains, we should have irrigation water into the fall.”

The Carson Valley farmer is not alone in his concern about reduced crop amounts.

Jim Ashby, the assistant climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Center’s Stead facility, said Friday if the trend continues, May 1998 could go down in the records books as the coldest on record.

“Our lows haven’t been out of line with other years,” Ashby said. “But our high temperatures have averaged 10 degrees below normal, probably due to the cloud cover. It’s been cloudy and it just hasn’t gotten as warm as usual during the days.”

Ashby said in the 70 years official records have been kept, Western Nevada’s coolest May on record was in 1953. That year, the month’s average temperature was 47.5 degrees. The average high temperature that year for Minden was 61.9 degrees.

“It’s certainly not good for growing crops,” he said.

At least one other expert agrees, but also says while 1998 could be a year of crop shortfalls, it could also be a year of opportunity for Nevada growers.

Martin Owens, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nevada Agriculture Statistics Service in Reno, said planting all over the state has been slow.

“But with the hammering California farmers have taken from the rains this spring, if we can get some good weather, it could be a great year for crops like alfalfa,” Owens said. “The rains have ruined the San Joaquin’s first couple of crops. In Fallon, where their first alfalfa crop would be about in, the threat of rain has kept them from cutting it. If we can string three or four days of good weather together so they can cut and dry it before it blooms, they’ll have some high quality dairy hay for a strong market.”

Owens said crop growth in the higher elevation of Carson Valley is traditionally about a week behind the Fallon area.

“The clouds threaten rain and the cool temperatures help keep the plants from blooming, so it’s sort of a watch and wait situation,” Owens said.

He said other Nevada crops are also slow getting going.

“Potatoes and spring grains, wheat and barley are particularly slow,” Owens said.

By early May, he said, only about half of Nevada farmers’ normal spring wheat crop had been planted and very little, 5 percent, had emerged. At that time, less than a fourth of the normal potato crop had been planted.

By this past week, Owens said, fields were beginning to dry enough that they could be worked and planted.

“Our range and pasture conditions are good to excellent, but with lower temperatures than normal, everything’s late,” he said.

Another Carson Valley farmer, Jacques Etchegoyhen, was guardedly optimistic.

Manager of the Mack Ranch, Etchegoyhen said that while this has been one of the coolest springs he can remember, the ranch’s crop of Timothy hay was looking good.

“At this time last year we already had hay cut and the Timothy was belt-high, while this year it’s only knee-high,” Etchegoyhen said. “But remember we usually only average 2-1/2 cuttings a year – and the third cutting is usually a marginal harvest. This could easily be a typical year in the Carson Valley.”

Etchegoyhen said this would likely be “one of those years that makes farming difficult.”

“I’ve never irrigated so late in the spring wearing ski gloves and a heavy coat,” he said. “The weather’s also having a bad effect on people’s attitudes. People are tired of cloudy, cold weather.”

Etchegoyhen said he likes to see farmers in Douglas County diversify, but he is concerned about some of the more temperature-sensitive crops.

“My brother-in-law (David Park) has 60 acres in onions, if temperatures get below 28 degrees for any length of time, it kills them,” Etchegoyhen said. “This year could make it tough for marginal crops. But then again, this is Nevada. It could be summer tomorrow.”

The long-range forecast, according to the National Weather Service in Reno, is for drier and warmer weather as a low pressure system, which has been off the coast of Northern California, moves past us to the east.

NWS meteorologist Steve Downs said high temperatures will likely be in the low 70s by early next week.

“We might see a few showers Tuesday, but it looks like we’ll gradually get warmer and the temperatures should stay at least in the 60s. There’s nothing big, storm-wise, on the horizon right now,” Downs said.

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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