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Farmers line up to outline their needs as water shortage strangles their crops

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER - Sen. Jeff Merkley held his annual Jefferson County Town Hall by Zoom Tuesday, June 15. Drought dominated the coversation.

Almost 30 Jefferson County citizens, most of them farmers, lined up on Zoom to pour out their stories to Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley Tuesday, June 15.

The drought took center stage.

Drought of farmers

"We're about to enter a huge drought of farmers," said farmer Cate Havstad, referring to farmers reaching retirement age and the water shortage pushing farmers out of business. "The situation feels very dire."

"I'm faced with probably losing my entire farm this year," said Barry Dinkel, of Culver. Dinkel says he stands to lose everything he's worked for these past 15 years. He's 34. "I think we need more people my age in farming."

"All these projects are going to take time," said Mike Alley, of Culver. "The family farm isn't going to be here in four or five years."

Havstad and Alley both want to see programs that help Jefferson County farmers grow cover crops. "We're seeing a huge amount of our topsoil blow away," said Havstad.

"There's no help for us to switch over to no-till type practices. There's no equipment funding. There's nothing to help us plant cover crops," said Alley. "And we've been one of the most efficient districts. We're penalizing folks who've put in the effort to do a good job. If you want us to sequester carbon, we have to have stuff growing on that ground."

Merkley responded, "The question I'm asking myself is how I can maximize the help from our Department of Agriculture. Let's get the local Farm Bureau to let us know what we need to be asking for."

Infrastructure

"We have a lot of water, and it can be used wisely, and there's opportunities for us to continue to farm in Jefferson County but not without some serious infrastructure to deliver water to our farms," said Evan Thomas of T&H Farms.

Havstad wants to pump water out of Lake Billy Chinook. "That could be a short-term, life-saving, farmer-saving solution."

Merkley said one of his major efforts has been to get money to Central Oregon for farming infrastructure. "That has resulted in $130 million to assist farmers with piping."

Endangered species

More than one farmer brought up the burden of sharing water to preserve habitat for the spotted frog and bull trout.

"Farmers in Jefferson County are being held responsible for saving the spotted frog. And that's OK, but I think this is an issue the nation needs to look at," said Thomas. "Fortunately, the habitat is still there, and we still have the frog. It used to reside from Seattle down to Northern California. We're the only place that it's left, and it's great that we're working to maintain that, but part of that cost is coming to us."

"The Endangered Species Act has been weaponized by groups to wage war on others," said Pete Bicart.

"Everyone on this call that's involved in agriculture respects the environment because they work in it every day."

Merkley says he sympathizes with efforts to preserve habitat. "There's a balance between mitigating the effect the changes human civilization has on the environment and what you described as weaponizing the ESA." Merkley said the piping project for Central Oregon helped the environment. "It delivers more water for farms at the same time as protecting the health of the Deschutes."

Farmers struggling against the odds to survive feel pushed to the back of the line.

"We are important," said Thomas. "It doesn't feel like we're important today."

Climate change

Merkley says climate change has to some extent caused the conditions farmers deal with today.

"It affects our farming, it affects our fishing, it affects our forestry. We're going to see more timber burn. We're going to see more water problems that will be magnified as our ground water levels drop."

Merkley supports alternative energy options. "We need to be bold to put renewable energy on the grid. Modify our grid and replace fossil fuels as quickly as possible."

Fire season

Dry conditions also forebode an active wildfire season.

"I traveled 600 miles back and forth across the state and never got out of the smoke," said Merkley detailing his experience of the 2020 fire season. "I saw town after town burned to a crisp."

Merkley highlighted the "Buttes to Basins All Lands Forestry Resilience Project," which he says will provide $3.3 million to Deschutes and Jefferson counties over the next two years to focus on reducing wildfire risk between wild lands and the urban interface.

"We have 200 million acres that have been approved for treatment, but we don't have the funds to treat them."

Merkley is trying to add the costs of treating Oregon forests as part of the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress.

"Thank you all for sharing your stories," said Merkley in closing. "These are painful stories, affecting finances, and one's way of life now in the fourth year of a brutal drought. Certainly, you've conveyed that you need help. I'm going to do what I can to get help."


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