Drought forces farmers to adjust
ONTARIO — Water is scarce this year, and local farmers are adjusting their crops to accommodate the drought.
Given that this is the third straight year of low water storage and low stream flows — and the fourth straight year of drought — producers have been making adjustments about water use and crop rotations, including what, if anything, to plant.
Some farmers are breathing a little sigh of relief because of recent rains, but not everyone benefited. Those who got the rain know the benefits may not last long if it gets hot and dry.
Craig Froerer, who farms north of Nyssa, said he thinks rains may have extended his water an extra week or two.
"It definitely dumped a lot of water," he said.
He cautioned, however, that weather will determine how long the benefits will last.
Kelly Peterson, who farms north of Ontario, said he thinks recent rains have extended his water about a week as well. Dana Tuckness, an Ontario-area farmer, agreed, but said not everyone benefited from the rain.
One field he saw had water standing in the furrows while another field just down the road had blowing dust, he said. A field in between the two was just damp.
Like many farmers, both Froerer and Tuckness did not plant all their ground.
"We have several hundred acres we're not farming," Froerer said.
"There are no onions on the bench," he added.
The bench only receives stored water from Owyhee Reservoir, via the Main North Canal.
"Those bench acres were all planted to spring wheat," Froerer said. "There is no money in spring wheat, but less money to be lost."
Crops such as sugar beets, onions and mint are grown in fields are irrigated by water pumped from the Snake River, he said.
"It's better than what I anticipated, but not what I would to see," Froerer said of the water situation.
For his part, 25 percent of his acreage has been fallowed this year, Tuckness said, including one field that has been bedded for sugar beets for two years but has yet to be planted.
Tuckness said he, too, has planted a lot of wheat this year. What may help the season along is that at least some of the wheat is maturing earlier this year.
Crops that may be brought to harvest despite loss of water can have lower yields, he said.
Jerry Erstrom, who farms near Willowcreek, said he had irrigation water up to the first of August last year, and it would be wonderful if it would last that long this year. But he expects the likely cutoff day is July 15.
"It helped to have a little moisture," he said.
Erstrom said he has alfalfa and has planted vegetable and native seed crops that are harvested earlier than other crops.
While the rain may have extended his irrigation season by a week, Peterson said he could be out of water by the middle of July. Last year he was out by July 18, he said.
"It isn't good," he said.
Farmers are watching their water very closely, trying to make the most of what they have, Owyhee Irrigation District manager Jay Chamberlin said.
Some considering whether to transfer a water allotment from one field to another, he said, particularly to a more valuable crop. That can be a complicated process; while the fields may be only 3 miles apart in a straight line, the water may have to travel an additional 17 miles through the canal system to get to the receiving field, Chamberlin said.
If the transfer is downstream, there will be a percentage loss estimate due to evaporation and other factors, Chamberlin said. One grower told Chamberlin he would accept a 50 percent loss on a transfer.
"Options are few," Chamberlin said.