Record dry spell looking dismal for organic dairies

03/07/2013

Coastal ranches and dairies are hoping that a week of rainy weather will precipitate a change in fortunes following a dry, cold and windy beginning to the year that has left their pastures parched. West Marin saw its driest January and February in recorded history this year, local watershed managers said, just one year after another drought required the county to be declared a crop disaster area.

“It’s one of the worst springs I’ve ever seen,” said Sam Dolcini, whose family owns a ranch in West Marin. “It has been critically dry since the first of the year.”

Though rain late last year filled the reservoirs, meaning that water collected for drinking and irrigation will not be affected, cattle ranches need rain early in the year for grass to grow during the spring pasture season. The weather is particularly important to the market

for milk, West Marin’s heritage industry and largest agricultural product, because national organic marketing standards require that beef cattle and dairy cows graze for at least 120 days and consume a diet of at least 30 percent dry matter intake from grazed pasture.

At least 16 of Marin’s 25 dairies are organic operations, and the county’s $31.3 million in milk sales account for 45 percent of the county’s agricultural output.

Yet only 2.07 inches of rain were recorded at Lake Lagunitas in January and February, beating a prior low of 3.43 inches in 1920, the lowest since records were started in 1879, according to Libby Pischel, spokeswoman for the Marin Municipal Water District.

Higher-than-normal rain has been forecast for this week, which ranchers said could salvage the year, but the agriculture community is on high alert after last year’s extended drought.

Marin was declared a primary crop disaster site by the Department of Agriculture in 2012 after the county saw only a third of the normal amount of rainfall from October 2011 to February 2012. Marin county also received a “variance” that allowed organic producers to ignore the “access to pasture” rule.

The lack of rain, along with cold temperatures and high winds, is inhospitable to pasture growth. But the weather is just one of a number of factors—including the cost of fuel and feed—that adds to the cost of ranching.

“We’ve already been having to raise prices (on consumers),” said Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, whose ranch is in Marshall. “So far they’ve been understanding.”

But Mr. Dolcini said there is limit to how understanding they will be. In the case of beef prices, he said customers will balk if they have to pay much more than the already elevated cost of beef. “Once a consumer walks away then it becomes a challenge to get them back.”

If this week’s rainstorm is just a break in the dry pattern, ranchers will have to reduce the number of cows on their ranch and sell them sooner, when they weigh less, at lower cost.

Government assistance, usually in the form of low-interest Department of Agriculture loans, could help ranchers and consumers by smoothing out sharp price increases.

But agriculture experts say it is too early to say whether there will be a drought that requires such assistance.

“This year we’re looking closely at it,” Stefan Parnay, Marin County deputy agricultural commissioner, said of federal assistance. “There’s certainly some serious concerns about the abnormally low rainfall.”