Bend Bulletin - Four years of drought taking a toll on weary Central Oregon farmers

February 7, 2023
Bend Bulletin - Four years of drought taking a toll on weary Central Oregon farmers

Moisture this winter provides some hope for a better year but many farmers are leaving the business or cutting production

Over the past four years of drought, Jefferson County dairy farmer Jos Poland has watched as many of his friends and fellow farmers left the industry to seek a livelihood elsewhere. Doing business in agriculture without sufficient water threatens their farms and way of life.

“It’s still as bad as ever,” said Poland. “I have friends who have sold all their cows because they were losing too much money.”

The drought and shrinking water supplies prevent dairy farmers like Poland from growing alfalfa for their cows, which forces them to seek hay in other parts of Oregon or other states. But limited supplies have sent hay prices soaring, sometimes up by 60% compared to pre-drought levels, a situation that makes dairy farming unprofitable.The past year has brought additional challenges. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked another round of inflation even after prices went up during the COVID-19-era shortages. For farmers, the costs of feed for cattle and fuel to operate machinery have both soared. Farmers are paying higher prices for fertilizer and parts to repair their tractors. Inflation threatens every aspect of their business, from growing food to delivering it to markets.Increasing costs and supply-chain breakdowns are also impacting milk producers, such as Darigold Inc. and Eberhard’s Dairy Products, said Poland. For a while, the milk companies were having trouble just securing lids for the milk jugs.

“There are a lot of shortages everywhere,” he said. “To tell you the truth, it’s a mess. I am not sure where this is going to end.”

But at the end of the day, it is the lack of water that hurts the most, said Poland. Last year, Jefferson County farmers were allotted a quarter of the amount of water they receive in normal, nondrought years.

For those in the North Unit Irrigation District, where Poland does business, farmers are usually allotted 2 acre-feet of water, an acre-foot being the amount of water that covers an acre of ground in 1 foot of water.

“With one foot you have a chance. With half a foot, you have no way in hell to make it in the long term,” said Poland.

The drought has dried up reservoirs across the West including in Central Oregon, but some hold out hope that a cold and wet December and January will make things a little easier for farmers this year. But Poland explains that challenges remain even if the drought eases.In particular, Poland blames a 4-inch-long amphibian for preventing farmers from getting the water they need to produce food.

“If it wasn’t for the spotted frog we would have gotten (an acre-) foot, which makes a huge difference,” he said.

Poland is referring to the Oregon spotted frog, a threatened species that inhabits the banks and wetlands of the upper portion of the Deschutes River. Historically, the frogs were found up to 34 miles downstream from the Old Mill District in Bend, but their habitat has shrunk due to development and changes in the way the river is used.Environmental rules set in place a decade ago to protect the frog require larger amounts of water to be released from Wickiup Dam in winter. This helps support frog habitat and improves conditions in their breeding areas, but it impacts farmers, too, by leaving them less water for irrigation purposes.

Instead of being diverted into canals, which are closed in winter, the water released to help the frog ends up in Lake Billy Chinook, 60 miles downstream from Bend. Some say a solution is pumping it out of Lake Billy Chinook and delivering it to farmers in North Unit Irrigation District.

Mike Britton, the irrigation district’s executive manager, said a plan to build a pumping station is being considered but the project will take time. The district has previously estimated it could take up to 10 years. Initial draft reports are underway and could be available at the end of this year.

Without sufficient water supplies to grow his own alfalfa, Poland has slashed his herd size from 240 to 130 cows. Poland raises his cows for milk but says the number of beef cattle in Jefferson County has also dropped. He expects the cost of a pound of meat in supermarkets will soon increase again as a result.“The beef herd hasn’t been this low in 30 years, just a matter of time before beef prices go up again,” he said.

Crook County farmers are also cutting their herds and reducing the number of acres they plant each season. Last month, both Jefferson and Crook counties declared drought emergencies, the first time any county in Oregon history has made such a declaration in the month of January.

Wade Flegel, a hay and carrot seed farmer who has operations just outside Prineville, said patrons in his irrigation district also get just a fraction of the water they did in wetter years. Flegel and other farmers have shifted their operations, focusing their efforts on crops that require less water or give a higher profit.

Like Poland, Flegel also points to rising costs as a serious burden. “We lost money and had all-time high expenses,” said Flegel, speaking of his bottom line last year. “It was a pretty good hit. It was a loss.”

Some farmers have managed to stave off bankruptcy by tapping into state resources, including grants and low-interest loans, said Flegel. But he said most of the state aid went elsewhere, including Jefferson and Klamath counties.

Poland, who grew up in the Netherlands before moving to the U.S. in 1993, said there aren’t many alternatives for farmers who can no longer shoulder their mountain of debts. One neighbor sold his farm to a retiree from Portland who wanted to spend more time in the country.

In other parts of Oregon, dairy farmers are selling off their herds, getting into other work, or just retiring. Some are taking out loans to keep their businesses going a little longer.Poland says his 16-year-old son wants to become a dairy farmer, but he is advising against it as a career choice.

“Right now I am saying do something else. There are other things that are easier,” he said. “It’s just a losing proposition and scary when you start putting your savings into the dairy business to keep it afloat.”

-Michael Kohn

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