Ag Tour Puts a Face on Water Issues

Written by: Susan Matheny

Members of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau conducted an impressive, professional tour of county farmlands Oct. 8, complete with an itinerary and folders chock full of information.

Tour participants included a Deschutes County commissioner, staff member from Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office, Deschutes River Conservancy staff members, a representative from the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and Oregon Farm Bureau members from Prineville.

They were shuttled around in a Kids Club van, driven by County Commissioner Wayne Fording, with local farmers Kevin Richards and Gary Harris as tour guides.

The tour opened dramatically by having the van climb to the top of Round Butte, where the group could view all the farmland irrigated by the North Unit Irrigation District. Most had never been there before, and it definitely caught their attention.

During the drive, Harris shared the history of Jefferson County homesteaders, and the irrigation district, while Richards gave observations from the perspective of a young farmer who recently returned to farm with his parents.

“We are doing the tour to show why Jefferson County agriculture is valuable, and why we are so fearful of potential lawsuits,” Harris told the group, referring to a threatened lawsuit against North Unit and two other irrigation districts over alleged harm to the Oregon spotted frog, an endangered species.

“We will continue to give these tours,” Harris said, noting the week before, the staff and directors of Central Oregon Land Watch were taken on a tour.

SUSAN MATHENY - Kevin Richards tells how the water filtration unit, on the left, works to filter water for a drip irrigation system in farm fields. Drip irrigation helps conserve water.Richards noted Jefferson County farmers were very progressive with the use of water conservation practices, such as piping and drip tape irrigation, along with no-till planting, and cover crops, which add nutrients to the soil.

“We do the best job with the least amount of water. And we can do it in collaboration with conservation, without being forced to with a lawsuit,” Harris said of NUID patrons.

Traveling to the Macy family potato plant in Culver, the group met Richard and James Macy, who are part of four generations working the family farm.

Noting that Jefferson County is noted for its specialty crops, Macy said they were unable to compete with huge commercial companies raising potatoes, so they looked for a niche or specialty market.

“So, we went into potato seed production. Now we’re raising seed for the baby potatoes you see in the grocery stores,” he said.

Richard Macy said everything was flood irrigated when NUID started, but then more efficient cement ditches and syphon tubes were installed. Next came handline sprinklers and pivots. The Macy fields now have five linear pivots, which go back and forth across a rectangular field, instead of around in a circle.

“Irrigation has changed tremendously. NUID passed a bond in the 1990s to line the porous lava areas of the main canal to save water, and we have pressure systems for the piped area,” Macy said.

“How did those changes in irrigation happen?” someone asked (since farmers had to approve and help pay for them).

“It was a matter of survival,” Macy replied bluntly. “If we don’t get enough water, we can’t raise a crop. And some crops make enough to allow us to put money back into the land.”

“Next year, we don’t know where we’re going to stand with water, so it’s hard to plan,” he added, referring to the potential lawsuit.

The next stop was the Fox Hollow Ranch, farmed by Martin and Nancy Richards, with their son Kevin on a farm of his own across the road.

The group saw a filtration unit, which uses two tanks filled with sand to filter water used in a drip-irrigation system. One unit can be used to irrigate 40 acres, and $500-$600 worth of plastic drip tape is used one time, then recycled, the group was told.

“Any water we can’t use goes into Willow Creek,” Marty Richards said.

Their farm grows alfalfa, Kentucky bluegrass, peppermint, wheat and hybrid carrot seed. Kevin Richards said the farm uses a lot of conservation practices, such as working wheat stubble back into the ground instead of burning it, which also increases the amount of organic matter.

“We don’t have the best soils here, but we have a unique climate and progressive growers with the latest technology, and on-farm conservation is really big,” Marty Richards said.

Heading up to Agency Plains, the group stopped at a hazelnut trial orchard being grown by Madras Farms. Tom Kirsch and his son Michael said a hard freeze last November killed the tops of the young trees, but suckers sprouted from the roots and are being trained up into trees.

Madras Farms raises many other crops, and the Kirsches talked about challenges with labor shortages, and a move to mechanize more of their operation.

They explained how waste water from fields was collected in ponds and reused on fields. “Anything we can do to save water is to our advantage. Water is everything for farming here,” Tom Kirsch said.

SUSAN MATHENY - Agency Plains farmer Seth Klann shows a tour group the wagon where samples of beer brewed with his own malted barley are available for tasting.Traveling to the edge of Agency Plains, the van took the group to the Klann family farm, which is in the process of becoming an estate barley malting facility. The farm is run by Brad Klann and his son Seth, who had the idea to diversify their grain growing operation by malting the barley.

“We’re adding value to a crop and selling directly to distillers and brewers. So, we’ve secured our own grain market, in a sense,” Seth Klann pointed out.

As far as he knows, they will be the only estate malt in the U.S., where the grain is grown on the farm, and all the processing done on the farm.

They currently have a prototype that steams, turns, dries and roasts the barley all in one machine, instead of having four separate processes. The prototype is processing 700 pounds of grain a week, but soon they will be installing a full-sized malter capable of doing 20,000 pounds a week.

Towering over the farm are four shiny new silos, each capable of holding a million pounds of grain. “We have two years of barley waiting to be malted, so in case of crop failure, we can still supply our customers,” Seth Klann explained. Besides barley, the farm grows rye and wheat.

Water is important to their operation, too. But Brad Klann noted, “We are on the end of the canal system, so we often don’t have to order water; we use captured water. We have eight ponds on the farm, and each holds enough water to run a pivot for 18 hours.”

Those on the tour got to sample some of the one-batch craft beers made with the estate malt by Seth Klann and head maltster Chris McMillen.

The tour ended with a lunch at Central Oregon Seeds Inc., and remarks from COSI partner/manager Mike Weber and NUID manager Mike Britton.

Weber talked about Jefferson County’s unique growing climate, with warm days, cool nights and a dry fall, which is perfect for hybrid carrot seed. “We are a major player in the world with carrot seed production,” he said, noting COSI produces 40 percent of the world’s carrot seed and 66 percent of the domestic carrot seed.

Britton talked about NUID conservation projects and challenges posed by the spotted frog.

“We are always looking for new and innovative ways to save water and use water. And we hope to be able to continue conservation projects for years to come without harm to the farmers,” Britton said.

One possibility, he said was, “Increasing the reservoir capacity (at Haystack Reservoir) and bring water down to Jefferson County and store it. There are a dozen sites between here and Bend that have potential for storage.”

Summing up the tour, Farm Bureau member Mickey Killingsworth said, “We’re trying to put a face on the spotted frog issue. We are the face – family farms.”

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