Weather and markets, the twin pillars that largely dictate the fates and fortunes of Arkansas Valley agricultural producers, were covered in considerable detail at the annual Farm/Ranch/Water Symposium held in Rocky Ford on Nov. 13.

For Michael Hirakata, both of those things were working against him this past year. In his presentation on branding and diversification, the Rocky Ford produce grower talked about how the variability of weather and downward pressure on prices can push a farm from profitable to unprofitable overnight.

Hail took out a devastating portion of Hirakata's melon crop this year. But his wholesale customers typically start out their annual sales negotiations by offering a lower price than the year before, regardless of the production challenges.

Hirakata said in a good weather year, his farm comes out ahead, but a weather disaster can easily tip the scale to the losing side, even with crop insurance to soften the blow.

"It costs us $12,000 just to put in one acre of melons," he said.

In his presentation, Hirakata covered the considerable investments his family and neighboring growers have made to keep up with consumer trends. In recent years, they upgraded packing sheds and cooling systems, created a traceability system on every box of produce they send out and diversified into growing more honeydew and seedless watermelons along with the famous Rocky Ford cantaloupe and traditional watermelon.

Several years ago, Hirakata Farms started a certified organic program as well. For reasons that are difficult to explain, mini-watermelons thrive under this new organic system, but the other melon crops yield only about a third of those that are conventionally grown.

The organic premium he gets doesn't make up for the significant yield drag, he noted, so in the future he will likely grow more organic mini-watermelons but fewer of the other organic products.

While the market for organic is going strong, the bigger selling point is being local and Colorado Proud, he said. And that puts a huge marketing opportunity right at his doorstep.

"The Front Range has grown so much that most of our production gets sold right here on the Front Range now," he said.

Despite tough conditions this past year at Hirakata Farms, overall it was an excellent year weather-wise across much of Colorado, according to a report from Nolan Doesken, retired state climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center in Fort Collins.

With the exception of the southwest corner, the bulk of the state had favorable snow pack, gradual spring run-off, mild temperatures and adequate rainfall, he said.

Normally a neutral phase in the El Nino weather pattern, which is expected to linger through 2020, indicates equal chances for higher or lower precipitation. However, a stronger signal from current modeling suggests temperatures will be above normal from now through next summer.

Combined with other weather cycles he is observing — most notably, the so-called "warm blob" in the Pacific Ocean that tends to block the jet stream from hitting Colorado — there are some cautionary signs ahead, Doesken said.

"I fear we'll have a dry winter in Southern Colorado," he said. "I am quite concerned we'll have a warm, dry spring in 2020. We do have good carryover supplies (of irrigation water), but our base river flows are already dropping quickly as we go through the year."

An entrenched drought in southwestern Colorado is also worsening again, he added.

Indeed, the one thing Coloradans can count on from year-to-year is extreme variability. Doesken showed a series of graphs comprised of more than 130 years of weather data that prove high precipitation years are seldom followed by more of the same, but they often skew in the opposite direction.

Weather, which impacts supplies, is clearly a factor in commodity prices, but there are many others to consider, as Colorado State University agricultural economist Stephen Koontz pointed out in his comprehensive market overview.

From his vantage point, livestock producers appear to have the most potential upside in the year ahead.

In terms of the current cycle, the national beef cowherd has peaked and is beginning to shrink as heifer slaughter increases, he said. Based on that, he projected fall feeder calves bringing $1.50 per hundredweight this fall would bring about the same next year, and then rise to $1.75 the following year.

He also predicted fed cattle prices will hold steady and eventually improve.

A big unknown hanging over livestock markets is the future impact of the African Swine Fever outbreak in Asia and parts of Eastern Europe, which has already taken out more sows in China alone than the entire sow herd in the U.S., he said.

The futures market reflects extreme uncertainty about how that will play out in terms of American pork prices between now and next summer, he said.

"Come June, we haven't a clue what the pork price will be," he said. "It could be record high or it could be record low. That's the thing that's hanging over the market right now."

Higher prices due to a deficit of protein would seem like a no-brainer, but Koontz said it isn't that simple.

Pork prices have risen substantially around the world, but not in the U.S., he said, mostly due to high tariffs resulting from President Trump's trade war with China.

Koontz said it is possible the Chinese government will simply allow pork prices to float higher while forcing its population toward other alternatives.

Koontz was more pessimistic in his assessment of the grains complex.

With corn stocks tightening slightly, and soybeans hit hard by the trade war, he expects corn acres to rise next year. Market forecasts from USDA show corn hitting $4 a bushel by next harvest, but he considers that overly optimistic.

His main advice for corn growers was to sell as much of their crop as they can at the seasonal high in July.

Hay prices should remain firm through the winter but will likely soften a bit next year, he added.

The most dire price graph he showed all day was the one for wheat.

"That's dirt cheap, he said pointing to the overhead screen. "I'm pretty sure I know which way wheat acres are headed."

The challenge for wheat growers remains the same as it has been the last several years: producing kernels with high protein content.

"We've got to get rid of all this low-protein wheat if we want to get the price back up off the floor," he said.