Central Oregon farmers rethink operations as water allocations dwindle

April 26, 2022
Central Oregon farmers rethink operations as water allocations dwindle

Some farmers and ranchers wonder aloud how long they can stay in business as reduced water threatens their operations

Terrebonne farmer Matt Lisignoli has enjoyed a good, two-decade run of growing Halloween pumpkins for Central Oregonians. Every October, his ranch is transformed into a carnival-like atmosphere, with train rides, a petting zoo, and kids plucking pumpkins from a patch.

But while an increasing population means more customers each year, drought and other factors are taking their toll and threatening to put him out of business. Lisignoli, owner of the Smith Rock Ranch, said he just can’t grow enough pumpkins with limited supplies of water.

“The drought has redefined my operations and made me question my future plans,” said Lisignoli, who moved to Central Oregon from Portland in the 1990s. “I hope to continue offering this to Central Oregonians and other visitors, but until there’s better management of our resources, I cannot guarantee how long I can continue.”

Lisignoli is just one of the dozens of farmers and ranchers in the area forecasting losses this year amid the most severe water cuts in the region’s history.

The North Unit Irrigation District, which supplies irrigation water to Jefferson County, is delivering just 0.45 acre-feet of water to its patrons, a fraction of the normal 2 acre-feet.

Lisignoli sells his pumpkins at stores across the region, and on his farm near Smith Rock where families load up pumpkins into wheelbarrows. If he can’t grow enough pumpkins, he will need to truck them over from the Willamette Valley, a costly proposition.

“The risks are soon to exceed the rewards of farming, and at that point, I will need to find another job with a stable and secure return,” he said.

Jos Poland, a 56-year-old organic dairy farmer outside Madras, contemplates what might be next for him if the drought continues.

“There are a lot of truck drivers needed these days,” said Poland, a farmer for the past 35 years. “Or we can file for bankruptcy.”

Poland said the only way he can turn a profit is to feed the cows with grass grown on his pastures. But without much water, there’s no way to grow the grass. So he has no choice but to buy grain and hay to feed his animals.

These commodities have doubled in price over the past year, he said, which wipes out any hope for turning a profit. His business is in survival mode, just trying to lose the least amount of money. In the off-season he sold 40% of his herd, leaving just 140 cows, in order to lower his feed costs.

“I have been doing this for 35 years, and my whole life I could predict what the future holds but not now,” said Poland. “We are just going a half year at a time. It is just new territory where we are at with this.”

JoHanna Symons, a neighbor of Poland’s, said she is also taking drastic measures on her farm.The water shortage will only permit her to plant alfalfa on 200 acres of the 1,100-acre farm. On the remaining 900 acres, she will plant triticale, a cover crop, to prevent topsoil from blowing away. She also normally has around 5,000 cows but has trimmed the herd size down to just a few hundred.

The downsizing efforts are meant to lower risk in the face of rising costs, but it will cut her revenue this year by around two-thirds of normal.

“We have been in business for 23 years, and, man, I really want to do what it takes to stay in business,” said Symons. “But with the high cost of feed, it makes for a zero profit margin.”

In another corner of Jefferson County, the owners of Casad Family Farms are also planning large crop cutbacks this year. The farm typically produces 150,000 pounds of organic potatoes annually. This year, the owners are cutting that to just 10,000 pounds. In years past, the farm grew 150 tons of organic hay for Oregon customers. This year, it will only produce enough hay for the farm’s own animals.

Co-owner Cate Casad said the drought resiliency plan includes scaling back vegetable growing and focusing on the small-scale production of organic beef, pork and chicken.

“(With) holistic and regenerative grazing practices, we are maximizing the use of the little water we will have by establishing grazable cover crops and growing organic grains,” said Casad.

Without a lot of water, Casad said the plan is to add value to the products they can produce, so the farm will be shipping frozen meat products directly to consumers. Casad also produces hats as a second business to help supplement her family’s income.

The drought is having an economic impact on Jefferson County due to declining land values as prices tend to stagnate on farms that don’t have a lot of water, said Jefferson County Commissioner Kelly Simmelink. The impacts will spread throughout the entire tri-county area, he adds.

“It’s a trickle-down effect. It will impact farms and downtowns,” said Simmelink. “Generally speaking the people who operate these farms do their shopping in Deschutes County. Everyone has had to tighten their budget.”

Back at Smith Rock Ranch, Lisignoli is worried that even if the drought subsides, farmers will still face shortages because of the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan, which guarantees increased water is left in the Deschutes River for the threatened Oregon spotted frog.

“The reservoir is releasing water faster than its filling, which is a bad scenario for producers relying on the summer flows,” said Lisignoli. “The drought doesn’t help, but the wanton release of stored water will have a greater impact.”

The shortages this year mean that there won’t be much production on his acres in the North Unit Irrigation District. He also has property in the Central Oregon Irrigation District, a senior water rights holder, so he will focus his pumpkin planting efforts there. But the higher elevation creates a freeze risk. He’ll sow his seeds and hope for good crop weather.

“Farmers are resourceful and work hard, but they are not magicians and cannot create water from thin air,” said Lisignoli. “Although I created my farm from an idea, I cannot continue to operate it based on dreams.”

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