Drought Impacting Parched LDS Farms and Ranches

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 2 June 2015

Wayne Earl, manager of the LDS Welfare Farm in Riverton, Utah, surveys rows of sweet corn. He and other farm managers are managing their crops during a period of historic drought.  Photo by Jason Swensen.

Article Highlights

  • The Church operates dozens of farms and other agricultural enterprises that provide food for its vast welfare programs. Many have been left thirsty and dry following another year of troublesome drought.
  • Members living in parched areas of the United States could help ease water shortages by following conservation directives from local civic and water leaders.
  • All members are asked to fast and pray on behalf of the farms.

“Drought limits the ability of our farms to produce the usual quantity of food to care for the poor and needy.” —Wade Sperry, Church agricultural specialist

Farmers have forever kept one eye on the ground and the second eye focused on the heavens.

Since the beginning, soil and sky have been intrinsically linked. If the rain does not fall from above, the soil will not produce sustenance from below. The Old Testament’s opening book, in fact, tells of seven years of plenty in Egypt, followed by seven years of dearth and famine.

Folks living in the western United States likely wince a bit as they read those ancient verses from Genesis. For several years, California, Nevada, Utah, and other neighboring states have endured ongoing drought. Dry winters and increased water demands in urban areas are exacting a heavy toll on parched farms, orchards, ranches, and vineyards.

The Church operates dozens of farms and other agricultural enterprises that provide food for its vast welfare programs. Many have been left thirsty and dry following another year of troublesome drought.

Sustained periods of dry weather can impact even the most well-managed agricultural operations, said Church agricultural specialist Wade Sperry.

“Drought limits the ability of our farms to produce the usual quantity of food to care for the poor and needy,” he said.

Brother Sperry said the ongoing drought is being felt especially hard at the beef-producing Delamar Valley Ranch in Nevada. Because of the baked conditions, feed is not available in optimal supplies. Herds may be reduced, yielding less beef.

“Feed can be difficult to find because the last couple of years have been so historically dry,” he said.

The Church’s cattle ranch in Nephi, Utah, is reportedly facing similar challenges.

Farm manager Wayne Earl examines alfalfa being grown at the LDS Welfare Farm in Riverton, Utah. The harvest is being impacted by drought and extreme weather conditions. Photo by Jason Swensen.

Sign outside the LDS Welfare Farm in Riverton, Utah. Managers at the farm are struggling to harvest a bumper crop during a period of severe drought. Photo by Jason Swensen.

Wayne Earl examines the kernels from young wheat being grown on the LDS Welfare Farm in Riverton, Utah. Photo by Jason Swensen.

Farm manager Wayne Earl examines wheat being grown on the LDS Welfare Farm in Riverton, Utah. He and other farmers in the western United States are dealing with an extended period of drought. Photo by Jason Swensen.

Meanwhile, Church-owned farms that produce alfalfa, wheat, corn, tomatoes, and other produce used in the welfare programs are dealing with their own challenges.

For someone without a farming background, the wheat at the 850-acre welfare production farm in Riverton, Utah, appears healthy and lush. The green stems are already waist-high.

But look a little closer. The wheat heads are short and are not yielding the number of kernels hoped for in a bumper crop. That’s caused by the dry, unseasonable warm conditions of several weeks ago when the wheat was young, said farm manager Wayne Earl.

“We’re expecting to harvest about 75 to 80 percent of our potential [yield] this year,” he said.

Brother Earl grew up on a farm and has worked on Church-owned properties for the past three decades. When it comes to uncooperative weather, there’s not a lot he hasn’t seen. Still, he admitted, this past year “has been an extreme year.”

Ironically, recent heavy rains in northern Utah have further complicated the growing season. The alfalfa on the Riverton farm is mature and ready to be cut and bailed, but it’s too wet to harvest.

Brother Sperry said the drought is not expected to affect the yield much on the Church’s sprawling vineyard in Madera, California, that provides raisins for the welfare program.

The peach and apricot orchards in Utah are also operating at full production—for now.

“If we keep having poor snowpack levels in subsequent years, we may have to reduce our water usage,” he said. That would likely mean thinning the orchard to ensure the trees stay healthy and fruitful.

Church agricultural managers are doing what they can to make do with the lack of water. Farming and ranching, they say, is both a science and an art. They are utilizing equal measures of technology and time-tested “farm sense” to make it through this historic period of drought.

But veteran welfare farm specialists such as Brother Sperry and Brother Earl never forget that Church-owned agricultural properties are sacred ground. They know the products being harvested here will feed families and individuals in need. Prayerful priesthood and Relief Society leaders will distribute them.

Brother Sperry said members living in parched areas of the United States could help ease water shortages by following conservation directives from local civic and water leaders. Be responsible and judicious in personal water use.

Members everywhere, he added, can demonstrate faith to help ensure the success of Church welfare farms, ranches, and orchards.

“Petitioning the Lord through fasting and prayer is the best way to help.”