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Low snowpack plus dry summer means tough choices for Eastern Washington farmers

caption: Third-generation farmer Jim Willard at his fruit farm outside Prosser, Washington.
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Third-generation farmer Jim Willard at his fruit farm outside Prosser, Washington.
Anna King for NNN & KUOW

If you’ve looked towards the mountains this month, this will be no surprise: snowpack is low.

Some of those peaks are barren, others are sporting a white dusting at their highest elevations.

Statewide snowpack levels are an average of 64% of usual as of April 29, compared to the average of the last 30 years, while some parts of the state are seeing much lower snowpack. The Lower Yakima basin is currently at 40% of normal.

And of course snowpack doesn’t just affect your view of the mountains, it impacts farms, fish, dams, and pretty much everything reliant on water in the state. The Washington Department of Ecology declared a drought for much of the state this month in anticipation of a dry summer.

"With a snowpack drought, we see temperature as a big driver. And that either leads precipitation to come down as rain instead of snow, or leads to what precipitation did come down as snow to melt off too early," said Caroline Mellor, statewide drought lead for the Department of Ecology.

"We've already seen an early melt of mid- to lower-elevation snow, and so we've got this really concerning snowpack," Mellor said. "That has been a big driver in this drought declaration."

Anna King is a correspondent with Northwest News Network who has been going out to farms east of the mountains in Washington to see how farmers are responding to this drought.

caption: Jason Sheehan poses on his dairy farm four miles east of Sunnyside, Washington..
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Jason Sheehan poses on his dairy farm four miles east of Sunnyside, Washington..
Anna King for N3 & KUOW

Jason Sheehan is a dairy farmer whose farm is four miles east of Sunnyside.

"Well, for the the water that we use, a lot of that's groundwater that's coming out of the ground," Sheehan explained. "And that's a great story in itself because that water gets used five to six times before it ever gets used to irrigate the crops."

Sheehan uses water first to cool the milk down in what's called a plate cooler. That brings the body warm milk down to almost refrigerator levels. Then, they pipe that water over to the cows to drink. After it's consumed by the cows, their urine is put in a treatment system, where it's then used to wash down alleyways in the milk parlor. Finally, that same water goes to water crops.

"I think like anything, you've got to keep a clear head and look forward and figure out how you're going to get through tough times," Sheehan said. "I think that's one thing that everyone in ag is good at, figuring out how to get through the tough times."

caption: Apple trees on a farm in Eastern Washington.
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Apple trees on a farm in Eastern Washington.
Anna King for N3 & KUOW

Jim Willard runs a fruit farm eight miles north of Prosser, Washington. Drought here looks like dug up fields of Pinot Noir grape vines that won't bear fruit again.

Jim has to allocate the water he does have access to in order to keep apples growing.

"Current forecast is that the Rosa will have a 62% water supply," Willard explains. "I'll have enough water for that block over there and my apples take a good 36 inches of water. So you're moving the water budget around around your farm and hopefully it'll work out."

The Rosa Irrigation District is one of the junior water rights holders on the Yakima River Basin, which allocates water for farms.

And it's not just the drought that has farmers on the ropes. Crop prices are down, with harvests of hops, apples, grapes, hay, grains like wheat and corn all selling at lower market values.

Meanwhile, prices of supplies that farmers rely on are up. Construction materials, gas, fertilizers, pesticides, tires, tractor parts, are all examples of inflation hitting the farmers in the wallet.

Many are resorting to loans to help cover costs, but even the interest rates on those loans are higher now. And with the U.S. dollar trending strong against currency in Japan, China, and Korea, foreign markets aren't buying as much as they used to.

2023 was a tough year for local farmers who are hopeful that 2024 will help them bounce back, but the drought isn't doing them any favors.

You can listen to Soundside's entire conversation with correspondent Anna King by hitting the play button above, and you can find all of her reporting at Northwest News Network.

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