Water shortages loom large at Jefferson County Farm Fair

February 9, 2024
Water shortages loom large at Jefferson County Farm Fair

MADRAS — When farmers get together these days anywhere in Central Oregon, water is usually a main talking point.

That was the case this year at the Central Oregon Farm Fair & Trade Show. The fair, held at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds Wednesday and Thursday, is an annual gathering of farmers, ranchers, equipment dealers, agronomists and others in this area’s agricultural community.

Shiny tractors were lined up outside the event hall and inside presentations were given on various aspects of farming — from plant pathology research updates to improving harvest efficiencies — but conversations between participants often veered towards the drought and water management best practices.“Our biggest issue is always going to be water,” said Sue Vanek, Jefferson County Farm Bureau president. “We are barely farming.”

Drought causing cuts

At her home near Culver, Vanek and her husband grow alfalfa and wheat.

Grass seed and carrot seed are also grown on their farm. But their production has been cut by two-thirds during the drought.

Weed control and the general upkeep of fallow cropland takes time and money with no return, she said.

Vanek points to the rising cost of goods and high-interest rates on loans as more hills to climb. Without water to grow more crops, the hope of financial solvency seems increasingly distant.

“We have to borrow a lot more money and pay a lot more interest just to farm,” said Vanek. “Jefferson County is really in a bad spot. It’s scary times.”

Snowpack in the Cascades was well above normal last year, but water experts say multiple years of above-average snowpack are needed to return Wickiup Reservoir — the primary source of water for Jefferson County — to full capacity.

Few businesses in Jefferson County are spared the impacts of the drought. When farms aren’t running at maximum capacity, farming jobs become scarce and revenue slumps. From bags of fertilizer to 12-ton tractors, Farm Fair attendees say sales are down across the board.

“When they can only farm half their ground they are not wanting to spend money on new equipment. The drought affects our sales as well,” said Ryan Grote, machinery sales rep for N&S Tractor. “It’s going to take a couple of years to catch up and get sales back to where they should be.”But the downturn has sparked some out-of-the-box thinking and industry pivots.

Anthony Otter, crop advisor for Pratnum Co-op, said his business has turned to pinto bean production which requires less water. Pinto beans haven’t been widely grown in Jefferson County since the 1950s, he said.

Equipment sellers are now looking beyond Jefferson County to bump sales higher. Madras tractor dealers travel regularly south to Christmas Valley and north to Wasco, Wheeler and Grant counties. Used tractor sales are also growing.

“We have to diversify. We are able to pull some used equipment from California and get farmers into tractors with a few hundred hours on ‘em, rather than a brand new tractor,” said Grote.

Water allotments

That type of creativity will be needed given water allotments on the horizon. North Unit Irrigation District hasn’t announced them yet — that happens in March — but farmers are bracing themselves for low allotments.

Gary Harris, a longtime Jefferson County farmer, said he expects water allotments to be similar to last year — amounts less than half of what is given in normal water years.

“I don’t think we’ll have much more water than we had last year,” said Harris. “At best we’ll have a foot.”

Harris is referring to the amount of water allotted to farmers each season. One acre-foot is half of what is given in normal water years. In recent years it has been even lower.

Harris, 78, mostly grows carrots and bluegrass for seed on his 580-acre farm. He’s been in the business for decades so his costs are much lower than young farmers trying to lease land and equipment. That has made him sympathetic to the challenges faced by industry newcomers.“If you are a young farmer that is not capitalized properly and your father didn’t give you their farm, it’s going to be a struggle,” said Harris. “The people raising wheat or hay, any of the forage crops, it’s going to be a tough go.”

Among those particularly affected are hay growers who need to cut their crop three times during the growing season. The water allotment this year isn’t likely to be enough for that much hay, Harris said.

At an information table, Sofia Blackwelder, a program technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stood ready to provide advice for farmers needing funding for drought relief. The number of phone calls from farmers in need of financial assistance has increased in recent years, she said.

“We have been seeing more people coming in since before COVID. The office was a bit more empty and slow but we have been really amping up the participation more recently,” said Blackwelder. “They are reaching out to find any way we can help them.”

Blackwelder said farmers are reporting extra mileage and fuel needed to haul feed and water longer distances because locally grown hay for livestock is hard to come by. Emergency relief programs are also available for farmers who have seen their revenue decline.

“That is a nice safety net for people dealing with drought issues,” said Blackwelder.

More than drought

Multiple factors play into Jefferson County’s water woes. Drought is just one piece of the puzzle and the one that is hardest to control.

Other factors include environmental regulations that require stored water in Wickiup Reservoir to be released in winter to benefit frogs and fish. Vanek, from the farm bureau, said that’s the main reason behind Jefferson County’s water shortages.“Because we have to let out water for the spotted frog and the fish, we will always be in a drought,” she said. “We have to pay our full water bill yet we don’t get our water.”

But precious water is also lost to the ground as it travels along leaky canals. Inefficient on-farm watering systems are also part of the problem. Still, others point to outdated water laws that encourage water waste.

Outside the Expo Hall, veteran North Unit farmer Marty Richards chatted with a Pape Machinery representative in the shadow of a John Deere 6R 130 utility tractor. During a break, Richards reflected on the water shortages and how it’s impacting farmers in his area. Considering all the factors contributing to the lack of water he said there’s just one that looms largest.

“The main problem is the drought. We’re still in drought,” said Richards. “Getting out of the drought will be the main factor for Jefferson County.”

He remains hopeful that day will come soon. He has retirement plans and is scaling back crops that require more intensive growing but still believes a good water year is on the way, ensuring an easier growing season for himself and others in his community.

“I am a farmer,” he said. “You can’t be a farmer and not be optimistic.”

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