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North Unit farmers plead their case for disaster assistance from the state Emergency Board

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS
 - Farmers make their case to ODA Director Alexis Taylor (back to camera) that years of drought and the heat dome created disaster conditions in Jefferson County worthy of disaster relief funding from the state.

Friday morning, Oct. 8 Alexis Taylor, Oregon Department of Agriculture firector, toured the sprawling farms that cover more than 37% of Jefferson County. She saw mile upon mile of fields yellowed from lack of water. What especially caught her eye were the brown fields never planted this year.

"Just the fallow ground, the ground that would typically have been planted into a crop that wasn't planted for lack of water," noted Taylor.

Fallow fields only began the cascade of trials farmers in the North Unit Irrigation District experienced this year.

Growers made their case to Taylor that North Unit farmers need disaster relief from the state.

"We're fragile. We are very fragile right now," said Mickey Killingsworth with the Jefferson County Farm Bureau. "Farmers are tough old birds. They don't like handouts."

But those tough farmers will ask for handouts now because the drought threatens their survival.

They drew the equation like this:

— Farms in North Unit can't grow crops without irrigation

— Farmers didn't get enough water this year and some are failing

— When enough farmers fail, the unit is no longer viable

— If agriculture fails in Jefferson County, the entire community suffers

The State of Oregon has set aside $150 million of natural disaster relief funding. Friday, North Unit farmers showed Taylor why this county's farmers need some of that money.

The disaster hits this region's farmers in three ways: financially, ecologically and community wide.

Financial disaster

Growers in Jefferson County have had five-plus dry years, but 2021 proved the worst since irrigation started 75 years ago. The numbers startled Taylor when Kevin Richards described the loss of production in his hybrid parsley.

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS
 - Farmer Gary Harris shows Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor a map of Jefferson County where the farm land dominates the photo. "We have a field across the road that had the potential to do $5-6,000 an acre plus," said Richards. "Well, it's going to do maybe $400 an acre."

Ron and Katie Oliver haven't had enough water to plant all their acreage for five years. This year, they planted only a third of their acres in hay. While they usually get 5 tons per acre, this year their fields yielded only 3-ton to the acre.

"I have only a third of my income," said Katie Oliver, "and still have to pay full expenses."

The little water North Unit farmers get costs three times what patrons in neighboring districts pay.

"I've got 578 acres of water rights," said veteran farmer Gary Harris, "and my bill this year was $78,000."

Between high costs and low yields, collectively farmers in the county lost hundreds of millions of dollars this year.

"Next year could end up being worse than this year," said Marty Richards, chair of the NUID Board. The board had to cut the water off two months early this year, so fall crops didn't get the water they're used to. "The crops aren't nearly as healthy going into the winter as they should be."

Ecological disaster

Farmers left half or more of their fields fallow this year. If they don't plant a cover crop, that valuable topsoil blows away.

"There's an ecological catastrophe in the making," says Marty Richards, "if we don't get the funding."

Richards says many farmers realize the health of the soil is worth the investment.

"There's a certain percentage of growers who say, 'Why would I spend money on that?'"

It's hard for a farmer already losing money to invest more in a field that's not producing.

Taylor thinks the National Resources Conservation Service, a federal program, might have funding to support cover crops.

But there's another ecological issue, endangered species.

"We're the ones taking the brunt of the burden financially for what the country decided we wanted to do for the Endangered Species Act," said farmer Evan Thomas.

The North Unit sacrificed 40% of its water stored in the Wickiup Reservoir to preserve habitat for the spotted frog and bull trout, water that might have meant the difference of survival for some North Unit farmers. "We are good with being part of the solution, but don't need to be the ones paying for all of it."

Community impact

Growers have had to lay off employees who have worked for them for 30 years or more.

"You're not just affecting the family farm, it's affecting my employees," says Katie Oliver. "They're now out of jobs, and their families are struggling now because I can't employ them. It all rolls downhill."

Harris describes the 59,000 farmed acres as "the economic engine of Jefferson County that employs four seed warehouses and fertilizer dealers, plus three equipment dealers."

Even people outside the district recognize the importance North Unit plays in the basin.

Wade Flagel, on the board of the Ochoco Irrigation District, calls North Unit a key player in the region's economy.

"We need to keep North Unit viable," says Flagel. "A lot of the businesses that we utilize are there in the Madras area. If we only had one or two fertilizer or chemical vendors, it would be extremely hard to get an equitable price for our inputs."

Phil Chang, Deschutes County Commissioner, recognizes the importance of NUID agriculture to the region.

"The value of crops produced out of Jefferson County is way higher than the agricultural productivity in just about any other part of the basin," says Chang. "Out of a sense of fairness, the people who are using water most efficiently to produce the highest value crops should have more water reliability. That's why we want to give special attention to making North Unit farmers whole."

Meaningful assistance

Taylor heard similar stories while touring the state — COVID interrupting supply chains, wildfires and smoke issues, floods, ice storms, the heat dome, more wildfires and smoke.

"What I heard is there are some very real needs here," she said, "and wanting to target those dollars to where those needs are."

Taylor realizes Jefferson County farmers need help now while they wait for federal assistance, and where federal assistance doesn't meet the need.

She'll go back to Salem and put Jefferson County's needs on the table along with all the others.

"To the extent that I have influence," said Taylor, "it's helpful to hear the impact and the challenges and what's meaningful assistance to producers to make sure they're here tomorrow and next year."


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