For hay grower and cattle rancher Kelly Lyon of Silt, the historic drought of 2012 brought an unexpected boon.
Despite scorching heat in July that hurt his hay production, Lyon got a premium price for the hay he did produce - around $300 per ton, up from $200 in a typical year. His Black Angus cattle, too, fetched high prices, partly due to a shortage of animals from drought-stricken states like Texas and Oklahoma.
Yet Lyon was also fortunate to possess senior water rights, ensuring he could irrigate his fields.
"If there's water in the river, we'll get it," he said.
In early January, farmers in many parts of the country were fretting about the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass a five-year extension of the federal Farm Bill. (Lawmakers settled instead for a 9-month extension that continues controversial subsidies and fails to fund some newer programs).
In Western Colorado, however, where production of commodity crops is low and many producers aren't directly affected by Farm Bill legislation, all thoughts are on the ongoing drought.
And many farmers and ranchers aren't as sanguine as Lyons about continuing water shortages.
"To go through a second year like 2012 would definitely be tough," said Ken Kuhns, who manages Peach Valley Community Supported Agriculture Farm near Silt with his wife, Gail, growing about six acres of mixed vegetables, flowers and fruit. "We've learned that we need those mid-summer rains."
Although Peach Valley enjoys decent rights to water from a nearby ditch, Kuhns said the drought certainly affected last year's production. He plants spinach in the fall for early spring harvest, and harvested about 100 pounds of it last spring, compared to 600 pounds the year before.
"A lot of that was due to moisture," he said.
As of Feb. 7, snowpack in the Colorado River basin hovered around 60 percent of average. That's about where it stood at the same time last year. But that was before the scorching summer heat depleted millions of gallons of water from area reservoirs.
"I think this drought is going to last us longer than the one in 2002, and that's because the reservoirs are all empty," said Paul Bernklau, a retired rancher from Rifle and a former president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. "Many people don't realize how close Colorado is to being out of water."
Bernklau is a seasoned drought-watcher. It was during the drought of 2002 that he was forced to sell out of the cattle industry.
"Getting out was the only smart move I made in the cattle business," he joked. "A lot of ranchers in the area had to sell out that year."
Faced with such climatic uncertainty, diversification may be the best way for farmers to avoid losing their shirts. Kuhns of Peach Valley said he sometimes plants fewer water-intensive crops like corn during dry years, and the CSA model, where members pay early in the season for a box of produce all summer long, protects Peach Valley from bankruptcy if production suffers due to extreme weather.
Even Lyons, who is optimistic about the 2013 season, has diversified away from agriculture. Most of his income comes from other ventures: a construction company, a scrap metal business, and several commercial rentals.
"It seems like it takes all that to make a living these days," he said.