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Low water conditions force Jefferson County farmers to find ways to conserve

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER
 - Jeff Whitaker converted from wheel lines and hand lines to a pivot system that delivers water 1 foot above the ground. He says it saves water and prevents brown leaf. He gets higher yields and better prices for his grasses.

The current drought makes matters worse, but Jefferson County farmers have always had to do with less water than neighboring districts. They hold junior water rights and get the water last.

Farmers here adopt water-saving technology before neighboring counties, says Oregon State University Extension Agronomist Mylen Bohle, right down to the drop. Literally.

"They're designing new nozzles that produce a larger drop," says Bohle, "so there's less evaporation from that drop."

Jeff Whitaker believes he was the first in the district to convert from wheel lines and hand lines in his hay fields to a LESA pivot, that's farmer speak for Low Elevation Sprinkler Application.

"Labor costs are lower. It uses less water," says Whitaker, "and my yield is better."

Low elevation means longer hoses from the pivot deliver the water just 1 foot above the ground.

Whitaker spent $1,200 an acre, or about $132,000, to switch to the new system. He says it pays for itself.

"When the winds come up in the spring, that water doesn't move," says Whitaker. "There's no evaporation from the leaves."

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER
 - Like most area carrot seed farmers, Kevin Richards waters with drip tape, a perforated hose buried right at the root of the plant. This system is nearly 100% efficient.Water on leaves causes brown leaf, which can cut his prices by 25-30%. The new system gives him better yields at higher prices.

On average, Bohle says, these new methods save about 18% of water. "So that means we're pumping about 18% less water, which means we're saving that amount of money on power because every gallon you pump costs you that amount of energy."

Carrot seed farmers like Kevin Richards use drip tape.

"You're putting it exactly where it needs it. Right next to the root," says Richards. A drip tape system runs perforated hose under the ground at the base of the plant. It waters only the roots, not the space between rows, not the leaves of the plant, and not the air around the plant.

"I put only one-tenth of an inch of water where typically a wheel line might put two to three inches of water at a time," says Richards. "So, you're using a tiny fraction of what you would with a wheel line."

Just as with Whitaker's hay, keeping the water off the carrot foliage reduces disease and increases the yield.

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER
 - Richard Avila grows tomatoes and lettuce on nothing but water and sunshine. During this drought, his hydroponic project accounts for half his income.Richard Avila and his father started their hydroponic operation 17 years ago. "We figured we'd want to do something indoors that used very little water."

The tomatoes and lettuce in Avila's greenhouses grow without soil in a nutrient-rich water solution.

"Indoors we can control the environment and use very little water." Avila says he uses 2,100 gallons of water a day on 3,000 plants. "And it's very good water." The operation uses Opal Springs water supplied by Deschutes Valley Water District.

Even with these conservation measures, these farmers will suffer from the drought this year.

Whitaker will not get a third cutting of hay. He says that will cost him $150,000 in gross revenue.

If irrigation shuts off mid-August as the district predicts, that eliminates a month or two of water the Richards' carrots typically get. They won't know until harvest how that will affect the yield and quality of their seed.

Avila planted only 160 of the 300 acres he usually farms outside his greenhouses. With the water cutbacks, he wishes he'd planted less.

Hydroponic plants usually represent 25% of his income. This year, it will account for 50%.

"There's not a lot of money being made outside right now," says Avila. "This drought is devastating for the whole district."

"You just do the best you can," says Whitaker. "You do a lot of praying and have a lot of faith in God."


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