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Relief package includes $3 million for weed control and erosion prevention

PHOTO COURTESY NUID - With water scarce Jefferson County farmers are leaving 60% of their ground unplanted. Farmers still have to spend money to prevent weed and erosion on their fallow fields. At the same time herbicide prices have more than doubled since last year.

Weeds could pose a monster problem for the North Unit Irrigation District this season. The district says what farmers do now will make all the difference.

NUID Operations Manager Gary Calhoun sees fields of weeds growing everywhere when he drives the district.

"With this wet spring, the weeds are really loving it," Calhoun said. "We're getting some growth going."

Calhoun especially worries about Russian thistle, bull thistle, tumble mustard, and kochia, the weeds that like to blow around in a wind storm.

Weeds always create problems for ditch riders who have to clear the blown-ins from irrigation canals.

"If you could walk on weeds, you could literally walk across the canals," said Josh Bailey, NUID general manager. "That's how bad some of them are."

Ditch riders, who control the gates that deliver water to farmers, must fork the weeds out of the canals and away from the racks designed to keep vegetation away from the gates. Sometimes they need heavy equipment to clear the racks.

PHOTO COURTESY NUID - Weeds in irrigation canals pose problems every year. This year, with farmers leaving 60% of their land fallow, the potential weed pressure magnifies.

"You'd be amazed at how much they pile up," said Calhoun. "Then they gather whatever water vegetation is in there as well and they become extremely heavy."

With the added pressure of the current, the combined weight sometimes bends the iron racks.

What every other year has been a nuisance could become a dire issue this year.

The drought forced the district to limit the water allotment to .5 acre feet this year, roughly a quarter of the water farmers get during a normal year.

This means most growers have fallowed about 60% of their acreage, more than ever before.

Unattended, empty fields grow weeds.

More fallow ground means more weeds.

Like most farmers in Jefferson County, Macy Farms let 60%, or 800 acres, of its land go fallow this season.

Even though fallow ground won't earn them any money, growers can't ignore the non-producing fields.

"It's going to take labor, money and effort to be good stewards of the ground we're not farming," said Richard Macy.

The Macys planted mustard on 250 acres, but they won't use any of their precious irrigation water on those fields.

"Any cover crops we put down are at the mercy of mother nature for irrigation," said Macy.

The acres the Macys haven't sown with mustard have stubble or grass sod lying dormant.

John Spring teaches weed science with the Oregon State University extension office. He says farmer have two options: till the soil, or use herbicide. With diesel prices and herbicide prices shockingly high, both options will cost more this year, and farmers will have to do more of it.

Tending the fallow ground costs money. Macy estimates it cost $100-120 an acre to plant the mustard.

Compounding the problem this year are shortages of the herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, pushing up the prices.

"Astounding," said Albert Sikkens with Pratum Co-op. Sikkens says what cost $20 a gallon last year now costs $50. "I've even heard farmers paying $70 a gallon."

The drought relief package state legislators awarded Jefferson County in December includes $3 million for just this purpose.

"We encourage patrons to get after those dollars," said Bailey.

Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District disperses the money.

The funds reimburse growers for expenses related to preventing erosion and weed pressure between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022. In other words, it pays for what farmers need to do right now.

Farmers who do manage their fallow ground suffer when other farmers let their land go.

"As the weeds tumble and move," said Macy, "the wind moves the seed and it contaminates my fields and my ground too."

Macy adds that blowing soil damages his crops, and silt fills the irrigation ditches.

No grant money pays for the damage done by the blowing weeds and soil, nor for the overtime for NUID ditch riders who have to drag the blown weeds out of canals after every wind storm. Patrons eventually absorb those costs.

"It'd be nice if the weeds had somebody's name on them," said Calhoun, "so we know where (they came from)."

Spring observes most growers are doing the best they can with some exceptions.

NUID will continue to communicate with patrons throughout the summer on how and where to apply for the soil conservation grants.

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