NOTE: This story originally aired on April 23, 2014.
As Northern Nevada continues enduring emergency drought conditions, we keep hearing that the snow pack is meager at less than half the norm. But what does that figure really mean for people who depend on the run-off, like our farmers? KUNR’s Michelle Bliss visited Lattin Farms in Fallon to find out how their crops—and emotions—are faring.
Rick Lattin’s family has been farming in Fallon for more than a century, tending to a rainbow of produce—everything from cantaloupes and watermelons to peppers and eggplants—along with harvesting a lot of alfalfa. Their sprawling desert property is also home to a fruitful agro-tourism business where families and schoolchildren can interact with daily farm life.
“And we’ve got the pick-your-own pumpkin patch and cow train for the little kids," Lattin says, "and we’ve got what we call “Critterville”—they can watch the animals and feed the animals.”
Both Lattin’s son and grandson work on the farm as well, rounding out a six-generation family tradition. They sell their produce in markets around the region, including Reno, and their alfalfa feeds the cows at nearby dairy farms.
“Because we’re at 4,000 feet elevation and have cold nights, the alfalfa develops a high protein which is very, very good for the dairies, so the alfalfa in these valleys in Northern Nevada is a premium product.”
Lattin is confident his produce will survive the drought because of a series of ponds his father put in thirty years ago to feed a drip irrigation system. But it’s a different story for some of his other crops, so we hop on a small ATV to go take a look.
“It’s the loss of the alfalfa and the small grains that hurt us. And on our farm we grow about 250-300 acres of alfalfa and small grain.”
Lattin points to a sandy-colored field. It’ll remain that way until he starts irrigating later this month. He’s one of the 2,500 water rights owners in the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District given only a 50% water allotment this season, down from 70% last year. The drop means less water, fewer harvests, and ultimately lower profits.
Rusty Jardine manages the district and says that along with a skimpy snowpack, water levels are low because last year’s drought prevented them from storing water in Lahontan Reservoir.
“I remember not long ago," Jardine says, "we had water going over what we call the flashboards at Lahontan. That means that that thing was completely full and that was just a matter of a few years ago, so this is a stark turnaround.”
In a good year, farmers will continue getting their supply of water until early November, but Jardine says this is not a good year.
“We’re thinking that our water supply will have given out on us probably sometime in the latter part of July, unless Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, intends to bless us with additional water resources, okay.”
That means that along with losing income from this year’s crops, Lattin could suffer long-term consequences as well. Alfalfa is a perennial crop, and Lattin has more than 100 acres that are ready for replanting this fall. That won’t be possible, though, if water stops flowing through the lifeblood of his farm, a series of irrigation ditches that run alongside his fields.
Lattin bends down to open the gate for one of his ditches.
“You crank the gate open," he demonstrates. "These are all sunk in concrete to preserve water and they have rubber gaskets around them so they don’t leak because water is so valuable here we don’t want to lose any water.”
Along with affecting the harvests and livelihoods of farmers throughout the region, Lattin says the continued drought has a larger economic impact on the community.
“Farmers are not going to be going out to dinner as often; they’re not going to be buying new cars; they’re not going to be investing in things. They’ll just hunker down and weather it, but it’s a tremendous economic blow to the community.”
Despite these setbacks, Lattin and his family have endured droughts before and he’s convinced that most farmers in Fallon will bear this hardship.