Our record-setting winter is taking an expensive toll on Idaho agriculture.
Heavy snows collapsed greenhouses and onion-packing and storage buildings across Southwest Idaho. Cold temperatures threaten to slash grape yields at Canyon County vineyards. Livestock operations are paying for extra feed at a time when the cold and snow stresses animals and kills newborn calves.
This winter, the Boise Airport received 35.5 inches of snow from Nov. 1 through Monday, the most ever for that date range dating to 1892, according to the National Weather Service. The previous record for that time period was 1985.
Treasure Valley farmers cannot remember a more severe winter, said Tucker Shaw, co-owner of Shaw Cattle Co. near Caldwell and president-elect of the Idaho Cattle Association. Shaw has been dealing with stressed and sick animals and a collapsed auction barn.
“This is definitely one for the ages,” he said.
Here’s a closer look at some of the impacts:
1. Greenhouse destruction
On the afternoon of Jan. 8, about a foot of snow had accumulated on the greenhouses of Purple Sage Farms, which grows organic produce and herbs 4 miles north of Middleton.
Owner Tim Sommer had taken the usual precautions, knocking snow from inside the top of the plastic cover of the quonset-hut-shaped greenhouses and heating the interior to encourage the snow to slough off the sides.
But the combination of the snow and freezing temperatures caused the snow to cling to the greenhouses, eventually bending the steel frames and collapsing five structures. Sommer slashed the plastic of three other greenhouses to save the frames, which are reinforced with wood walls on each end.
“In 28 years, we’ve never seen anything like this,” Sommer said.
Purple Sage grows 60 percent of its crop in the greenhouses, including the plants that generate sales during winter, Sommer said. He is looking at $30,000 to $50,000 in damages, mostly to replace the greenhouses.
The timing couldn’t be worse. “You don’t want to start the spring with big bills because there’s no cash flow,” he said.
Sommers received unexpected help in the form of a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign set up by Janice Fennel, operations manager for the Boise Farmers Market.
The campaign had nearly reached its goal of $25,000 on Wednesday, which Sommer said will help the farm through an expensive year. A total of 268 donors contributed.
“Instead of crying about the trouble we face, our tears are more for the gratitude we feel,” Sommer said. “We are completely humbled and shocked.”
2. Vineyards threatened
The fruit-producing buds on grape vines in the Sunnyslope area of western Canyon County are fine until the temperature reaches minus 10. The thermometer reached minus 13 on Jan. 6 and minus 21 on Jan. 7.
Krista Shellie, viticulture research horticulturist at the University of Idaho extension in Parma, said grape growers won’t know until April how severe the damage is. An industry model that factors in extreme temperatures and the stages of the growing cycle suggests that as many as half of the buds may have died.
That would leave Idaho output far short of the 3,000 tons of grapes the Idaho Wine Commission estimates were harvested in 2016. There’s a chance some vine trunks were damaged, too, which would require cutting the damaged areas, retraining vines and waiting until 2018 for some fruit to return.
Shellie said she has taken far more calls from growers than normal. “I think most of them are panicked,” she said.
Dale Jeffers manages Skyline Vineyards, which grows 22 grape varieties on 500 acres 11 miles southwest of Nampa. The vineyard sells to about a dozen Idaho wineries. Jeffers said he and other growers are bracing for a poor 2017.
“The growers are going to pay a price for it, and the wine makers, too,” he said. “Hopefully, they can source grapes from Washington or Oregon. There always seem to be ways around problems. But it’s going to be rough.”
A reduced supply of grapes could raise prices, helping certain growers offset weather damage.
“Our grapes are contracted at an agreed-upon price,” Jeffers said. “Others who don’t have contracts may sell on the spot market, and [the low yield] could be beneficial for them.”
Damaged vines could limit the state’s wine production for several years, said Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission.
However, she said wineries have plenty of wine already aging, thanks to last year’s bumper crop.
“Wineries could hold back some wines if they see this as a problem,” Shatz Dolsby said. “It’s not going to be the end of the world.”
3. Onion sheds collapse
Some of the worst damage has struck onion growers.
Snows collapsed 16 onion-storage sheds and two packing plants around Canyon County and eastern Oregon — 25 percent of the region’s onion-processing capacity, according to the Capital Press, an agricultural newspaper.
Dallas Jensen, grower and industry relations manager at Champion Foods in Parma, said his company was lucky to lose just one of 20 storage sheds. Jensen expects the damage to buildings and in lost business in the region will total in the millions of dollars.
“This is unprecedented,” he said. “I don’t think you could overstate the kind of damage that’s happened. We’re just glad the damage has been structural, with no loss of life.”
Insurance will likely cover most of the structural damage, Jensen said.
But the lost business and upfront rebuilding costs are added hardships for an onion industry already struggling from back-to-back poor years, said Garth Taylor, an agricultural economist at the University of Idaho.
“Some of them are in desperate straits about their onion prices,” Taylor said. “This is adding a financial burden.”
Onion growers and packers who suffered no losses could benefit. The Capital Press reported that a 50-pound bag of yellow jumbo onions cost $3.50 before the collapses and $6.50 one week afterward.
4. Stress on livestock
Shaw Cattle Co. is in the thick of calving season.
The temperature reached minus 20 on the night of Jan. 7, when 31 calves were born. The company, which raises breeding stock, is feeding its 1,500 cows an extra 20 to 25 tons of hay per day to keep up their strength, said Greg Shaw, Tucker’s father and co-owner of the business. That is boosting feed and labor costs.
“Normally, the cows stay out and graze,” Greg Shaw said. “We had to start feeding every cow before Christmas, which we haven’t had to do for 25 years.”
Temperatures below 20 degrees stress the cattle, especially newborns. The 2-week-old calves are showing signs of weak immune systems, Tucker Shaw said. The newborn mortality rate has been up to 5 percent, nearly twice that of most winters, and it could rise, he said.
“We expect when it starts warming up and getting real wet and muddy, we’ll potentially have a lot of sick calves,” Shaw said. “Then, we can really have losses.”
Greg Shaw said two buildings on the farm collapsed under the snow, including a large barn where he planned to auction animals Feb. 15. He is scrambling to find a crew to either replace the roof or rebuild the entire structure in time for the auction.
At least one dairy in the Valley lost cows when a building collapsed. The dairy was forced to euthanize the critically injured animals, Tucker Shaw said.
Greg Shaw, 66, said he has spent 58 years in Canyon County. “This is the hardest winter I have ever seen here, and the most snow,” he said.