Ready for the worst: Lack of water making Humboldt County farmers 'nervous'

While Saturday's rainfall offered some respite to a seemingly endless dry season, local farmers are still planning for another parched year.

When asked how the arid conditions have affected production for local farmers in Humboldt County, dairy farmer John Vevoda laughed and asked, "Where do I begin?"

As an organic dairy and beef cattle producer, Vevoda relies heavily on his 800 acres of pasture land to feed the cows on his Ferndale dairy farm. While he said the cows "love the mild weather," Vevoda and other producers have been growing "a little nervous."

"The problem is the pasture isn't growing this time of year," Vevoda said. "If they get wet, we get an excuse to lock them up, whereas if they're dry, like they are now, it's a must that we turn the cows out to them. We can't deny them food."

Vevoda said he also acquires feed produced by other local farmers to stock up for periods of low yield. With last year being the driest year on record for California, these farmers have also taken a heavy hit in their production.

"We try to work with other organic farmers to secure feed," Vevoda said. "In this situation, Mother Nature is not cooperating. It has a huge trickle-down effect."

To adapt to the lack of water, Vevoda said he had to drill a new well last year and may have to irrigate his pastures again. Vevoda said he and his family will be alright for now, but are still planning for the worst.

"I'm already looking at feed sources further away, and that's going to be expensive," Vevoda said. "We're trying to do as much as we can and be as self-sustaining as possible."

Stuart Dickey of Rich Well Drilling and Pump Service in McKinleyville said that he saw about a "20 percent increase" in calls to drill last year, with many coming from local dairy and cattle farmers.

"The calls that we've received are mostly that existing wells have gone dry, or the production was low," Dickey said. "For some of the older wells, they only put their wells down to about 25 feet, which up until a couple years ago, was plenty."

Dave Fisch of Fisch Drilling in Hydesville said that he also had more calls during a season where drillers are normally "sitting around."

"Customers are being smarter and calling in earlier saying that they're worried about the spring," Fisch said. "If this goes on at this kind of rate, it will start affecting everyone pretty seriously."

Should the dry season continue, Vevoda said he would "definitely have to cut (their) herd size."

As a result of last year's conditions, many farmers have already applied for emergency assistance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency. Vevoda said he did not apply this year.

"They've been kind of keeping us in the dark about that," Vevoda said. "Besides, I've been too busy keeping my head above water."

In June, Humboldt County Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Dolf made a request to the Department of Agriculture for a secretarial drought designation, which would allow local producers access to emergency assistance programs. Dolf said they received the designation in August, but as of the beginning of the month, they have not been able to give out payments.

"They haven't received assistance yet because the federal government shutdown delayed the generation of payments," Dolf said.

In order to receive assistance, the farmers have to apply for insurance through the Non-insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program of the Farm Service Agency and file a notice of loss. In order to receive assistance, producers must report a 50 percent or higher reduction of their expected output, or had to be prevented from planting more than 35 percent of their "intended crop acreage," according to the Farm Service Agency website.

"Those areas away from the coast are much more dependent on the timing of the rainfall to grow those grasses," Dolf said. "What we do is play a role in securing and qualifying our producers for programs that are helpful when they are suffering adverse weather conditions."

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Humboldt County is currently experiencing a "severe drought" as of Jan. 7. Gov. Jerry Brown has not declared a statewide drought emergency.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or Follow him on Twitter @Will_S_Houston