Wade Sperry is both an agricultural professional and a believing Latter-day Saint — so he regards the historic drought parching the Western United States from two distinct angles.
First, he acknowledges the sober realities of an extended dry spell dramatically affecting operations at several Church-operated welfare farms and ranches.
“Things have been drier than average for several years now,” said Sperry, a veteran agricultural specialist in the Church’s welfare department. “So our farms and ranches are having to deal with that as best as they can.”
Skilled planning is in full swing to optimize yields at each welfare property. Still, he admits the circumstances “are far from the ideal.”
But Sperry speaks with equal sureness when he testifies of “the miracles” sustaining those same agricultural facilities. Miracles that will help feed struggling families through the Church’s welfare program.
Daunting dry seasons
For farmers, ranchers and orchard keepers across the United States, the summer of 2021 has been the stuff of night terrors.
Utah, for example, is home to several Church-operated welfare agricultural sites that help keep the bishops’ storehouses well-stocked. The Deseret News recently reported that Utah has seen just 62.4% of the precipitation typically received in a normal water year, which begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30.
The Utah Department of Natural Resources reports that 77% of hay and roughage supplies are rated as short or very short, and 69% of pasture and rangelands are rated as poor to very poor. Meanwhile, many of the state’s irrigation systems have announced an early shut-off this summer, straining both farmers and ranchers.
On Church-operated welfare properties across the region, local managers are also minimizing their irrigation use.
“Things have been dry enough on all of our [affected] ranches that we have had to haul water to cattle troughs,” said Sperry. “That’s an activity you really don’t want to do. Ideally, you want to have running streams and creeks so the cattle can graze naturally on summer grazing grounds.
“But this year, everything has pretty much dried up.”
On the Church’s massive welfare ranches in Nevada, for example, the reservoirs that typically help water cattle herds have been emptied by the drought. That has resulted in diminished feed and a reduction in cattle.
“It also means that our ranch staff and teams of young service missionaries are having to haul water [to the cattle] every day,” added Sperry.
Welfare farms in the drought-affected areas have also struggled.
“On a lot of our welfare farms, we’ve had to cut off water prematurely on crops, which generally means that the crops will not ripen and not come to full harvest,” said Sperry.
That has forced many local welfare farm managers to divert limited water resources to priority crops used prominently in the Church welfare system, including wheat and vegetables such green beans and sweet corn, along with alfalfa used to feed cattle in the winter.
“That means we are sacrificing the rotational crops that we might otherwise sell off [to non-welfare markets],” said Sperry.
Meanwhile, managers at the welfare pear orchard in Medford, Oregon, have been “very conservative” in allocating irrigation water to ensure that the fruit reached ripening stage.
The orchard’s water supply dried up a few weeks ago.
“Thankfully, the pears were at the point where they were ready to harvest,” said Sperry.
The Church’s sprawling fruit orchard in Caldwell, Idaho, has not struggled as much as other similar properties. “It hasn’t been quite as dry in that area … and they’ve had plenty of water to get them through the year.”
Preparation has also proved critical in Caldwell, where ponds were developed and abundant irrigation shares were acquired long before the drought arrived.
Bill Summers manages the Church’s Geraldine Montana Crops welfare farms. Ongoing drought and unusually high summer temperatures, he said, “have been tough” on a dry farm that produces wheat destined for the welfare system’s pasta plant.
“One hundred percent of our irrigation comes from the Lord,” said Summers. The Geraldine farm has experienced a reduced yield, but the quality of the crop has remained high.
Recent monsoon rainfall in areas across the region has offered some relief. Call it an H2O Band-Aid.
A few weeks ago “we were able to partially fill several of the reservoir systems on the Nevada cattle ranch,” said Sperry. “And it also rained on top of our crops, which is a benefit.”
But if the various forms of water were classified as precious metals, snow remains solid gold.
“Rain is good, but the best scenario would be if the Lord hears our prayers and blesses us with normal to above-normal snowpack in the mountains,” said Sperry. “Snow is really the most effective water source for our agricultural system in the Western United States.”
Summers added he is hoping for “a severe winter” in Montana to ensure a bumper crop for the 2022 season.
Opening heaven’s windows
While the challenges of the drought are real, Sperry believes the divine hand of providence is just as evident. Counted among each day’s dire drought realities are also blessed news nuggets.
The recent storms that dumped rainwater in the Nevada ranch reservoirs, for example, “was an answer to prayer,” said Sperry.
Meanwhile, a senior manager of a Church welfare wheat farm in Kimberly, Idaho, had been understandably uneasy about this year’s crop. “But he ended up having an above-average yield with above-average wheat quality, which was a complete and total surprise,” said Sperry. “That manager considers that a miracle, and so do I.”
Similar crop “miracles” are being reported at other essential welfare properties, including a farm in Nephi, Utah, that provides durum wheat for the Church’s pasta plant.
“Once again,” said Sperry, “we’ve had above-average yields with above-average quality.”
In early July, Summers was prepared to make the most of his drought-affected crop by cutting much of the wheat early and selling it as hay to ranchers to feed their cattle. Then an unexpected thunderstorm dumped rain on the Geraldine fields.
“That was the answer that I needed to leave that wheat crop alone,” he said.
Perhaps the greatest drought-proof blessing found across the Church’s thirsty welfare properties are the devoted managers, employees and service missionaries such as Summers.
They skillfully balance the science and art of large-scale agriculture, noted Sperry. They are professional and prayerful.
Ultimately, eternal principles such as faith, prayer, fasting, charity, provident living and following the direction of modern prophets are allowing the Church-owned welfare properties to endure the ongoing drought.
“Those are all foundational welfare principles of preparedness,” said Sperry. “We would all be wise to re-study them and pay attention whenever the Brethren talk about those principles in the future.”