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Southwest Colorado’s farmers adapt to rising prices

Inflation, war in Ukraine and the pandemic have led to increases in fertilizers, feed
Tanner Dukart, with Basin Coop in Durango, fills and stacks bags of poultry feed Thursday at Basin Coop. Farmers and ranchers are feeling the effects of inflation, the war in Ukraine and the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not everyone is understanding when they raise their prices for goods. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Nearly every week gas prices nudge higher, as do prices across many facets of life in Southwest Colorado.

For farmers and ranchers, the effects of inflation, the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic are even more pronounced. The costs of fertilizers, animal feeds and nearly all of the inputs they rely on for their operations have ballooned in the last year. As prices have crept upward, they have compounded the challenges of drought for farmers.

But as Southwest Colorado’s agricultural community adapts, some are highlighting practices that have insulated their operations from the worst effects of the price increases.

“It feels like all across the board everything’s getting more expensive,” said Tyler Hoyt, who runs and owns Green Table Farm in Mancos.

Cracked corn is ready to be picked up Thursday at Basin Coop in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Hoyt grows an array of vegetables and raises chickens, hogs and goats. He feeds his chickens and hogs a mixture of wheat, corn, sunflower seed pellet, calcium and Austrian field peas.

With the war in Ukraine disrupting agriculture in the country and Russia, which together account for about a quarter of the world’s wheat production, prices for the wheat Hoyt includes in his feed have increased significantly.

“A bag of wheat went from $11 to $18 basically overnight,” he said.

Hoyt has seen the biggest jump in animal feed, but the price of diesel has also surged, as has the cost of hay.

In response, he has had to make changes to his operation and increase prices of the produce he sells at Durango Farmers Market.

“We’ve definitely cut down on getting the best hay possible. We have to really shop around trying to find a price where we’re not going to lose money,” he said.

Eggs went from $7 to $8, lettuce from $4 to $5 and apple juice from $20 to $22.

When Hoyt raised prices on his produce a few years ago, customers at the farmers market questioned the increases. But amid global disruptions and inflation, his buyers have recognized the necessity.

Kalen Elliott, yard supervisor with Basin Coop in Durango, talks with customers Thursday at the co-op. Farmers and ranchers have had to raise some of their prices at farmers markets as a result of higher costs they are facing for fuel, fertilizer and animal feed. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“This time around when we went from $7 to $8 (for eggs) I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “I think people have kind of accepted that that’s the way things are going right now and there’s really not much you can do about it.”

Heidi Rohwer operates Rohwer’s Farm near Yellow Jacket with her family where they grow fruits and vegetables and raise chickens, turkeys, sheep and pigs.

Costs for Rohwer’s pots and potting soils have gone up over the last year, as have the prices for her seeds. Anything that requires shipping has surged, if they were sent in the first place. With supply chain disruptions and shortages, some of Rohwer’s suppliers did not send everything she ordered.

“Most everything has gone up from between 20 to 50%,” she said.

At Basin Coop in Durango and near Cortez, prices for nearly all farm supplies have swelled.

Fertilizer has increased dramatically, though over the last 30 days prices have relaxed some as farmers have finished fertilizing their fields, said Don Dukart, president and CEO of Basin Coop.

Travis Tyler with Basin Coop in Durango loads cracked corn for a customer on Thursday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the cost of fertilizer in April, the most recent month data is available, was up 71% from the same time last year.

With Ukraine a major producer of corn in addition to wheat, the costs of animal feeds have broadly increased. Purina’s Equine Senior, a popular horse feed, is now more than $28 per bag at the farm supply, up from about $21.50 last year, Dukart said.

The prices for fencing and any product with steel have soared, and even vaccines have risen 10% to 15%.

Basin Coop has struggled to simply obtain the farm products it needs, and when it does, pricing is challenging with markups from manufacturers forcing the co-op to quickly change prices, Dukart said.

“I'm surprised our sales are still really good. People are still buying,” he said. “Of course, if you’re farming you’ve got to have the inputs. It’s not like you can’t buy diesel fuel.”

Dukart said lasting impacts from the pandemic are also playing a role.

“Now that things are opening back up and people are wanting to spend money, there’s just no supply there,” he said. “Supply and demand: The demand’s a lot greater than the supply so the price goes up. It’s kind of a combination.”

Orren Cundiff, 10, buys livestock supplies with his brother Cole, 8, as Teagan Deweese, at the register, and Rachel Smith, both with Basin Coop in Durango, assist them. Some farmers say high costs are compounded by the effects of an extended drought, which has made agriculture difficult in Southwest Colorado. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For Southwest Colorado’s farmers and ranchers, high costs are compounding the effects of extended drought, which was already making agriculture difficult.

In 2021, Rohwer’s Farm received 1.7 inches of water of the 22 it is allotted, forcing the farm to cut down its production by two-thirds, Rohwer said.

“We just decided to scale back quite a bit last year because we knew it was a bad year and we really weren’t expecting a good monsoon season,” Rohwer said. “I would say the drought is causing the biggest problems for the farms around us, as well.”

Hoyt attributed the rising hay prices to drought. Hay farmers in the region have been limited to one or two cuttings instead of three, and in some cases, four without enough water, he said.

“The environmental factors are probably greater of a cost than diesel being $1 more,” he said.

Sustainable farming helps offset disruptions

Even as some farmers wrestle with higher costs, others are pointing to the benefits of their farming practices as a way of insulating them from global and domestic disruptions.

Max Fields and his partners operate Fields to Plate Produce north of Durango. The farm grows organic vegetables and raises sheep and cattle using regenerative techniques.

Fields relies on the livestock to fertilize crops and does not purchase feed because the farm’s animals are entirely grass-fed.

“The grass feeds our animals, the animals feed our crops and that circle continues year to year,” he said. “We do have equipment and tractors to run, and of course that’s been more expensive to do, but I think we’re able to rebound a lot easier from this kind of inflation because we just aren’t super reliant on outside inputs.”

Hoyt does not use conventional fertilizers, making his own fertilizer at his farm, which has also shielded him from a significant cost increase.

Travis Tyler with Basin Coop in Durango helps Tom Eskew load metal fence posts into his truck Thursday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Fields said the effects of inflation and global turmoil on agriculture have revealed the benefits of regenerative farming.

“It just kind of goes to show the world this kind of farming is something that can feed the world sustainably,” he said.

For those farmers and ranchers adapting to increasing costs, help could come later this summer. Some of Basin Coop’s suppliers suggested prices and supplies will ease in the coming months, Dukart said.

“Some of these steel prices will back off after they get production back up. It’s got to. People can’t sustain this,” he said.

But even if prices slouch, the relief for some of Southwest Colorado’s farmers will likely be fleeting.

“More than price hikes and inflation, I feel like the environmental factors are a much more important thing to pay attention to and adapt to,” Hoyt said. “You’ve got to really be on your feet thinking hard about what the future might look like, and it’s probably not going to be any better than it is right now.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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