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‘A rough year all around’

file photoPears at an orchard near Harry & David on Voorhies Road wait to be harvested.
Local growers reflect on summer challenges

From the perspective of a local farmer, heat, drought, labor and smoke could adequately sum up the summer of 2021. Looking forward, adaptability is the name of the game.

On Monday, the Ashland Climate Action Project with Southern Oregon Climate Action Now hosted a Zoom panel discussion to check in with some local growers about how crops fared, plans for 2022 and their thoughts on the future of food security.

Maud Powell, owner of the certified organic Wolf Gulch Farm, has produced on three acres in the Applegate Valley since 1998. Starting with mixed vegetables, the farm sold to markets, and for 15 years operated the largest Community Supported Agriculture program in the Rogue Valley, Powell said.

In 2001, with a severe turn to drought, ponds built to store water from a diversion off Wolf Gulch dried and cracked, prompting a reinvention of the farm’s irrigation system to use as little water as possible, she said. Strategies included switching to drip tape, building topsoil to increase holding capacity, planting cover crops and use of a deep plow to create furrows to hold water longer on the landscape.

“We’ve had a few rougher years where the rainfall wasn’t as great … but we felt really good about the fact that we were able to grow so much produce without a lot of water,” Powell said.

Recognizing potential in the Southern Oregon climate for growing specialty seed crops, which require less water, the farm gradually transitioned away from produce — ceasing produce production entirely last year. Wolf Gulch Farm maintains six contracts with companies around the country for seeds, Powell said.

In the past five years, rainfall in the Applegate Valley dropped from a historical average of 21 inches to between 15 and 18 inches, accompanied by higher temperatures. Last year, Wolf Gulch dried out completely and the farm became reliant on ponds and winter catchment, Powell said.

A heat dome in late June brought temperatures over 100 degrees for five consecutive days and over 95 degrees for three weeks, inspiring fear about what August would bring, she said. Despite the family’s commitment to the land, where they planted saplings and built community, this summer they faced the “devastating” possibility of needing to move on.

“It was a dark time,” Powell said. “On our farm, at that point we’d been there for 23 years, and Tom looked at me one day and said, ‘I don’t think we can farm here anymore.’”

Powell said she and her husband hope to keep farming in the Applegate Valley, but their imminent priority is finding a property with water.

“We started out with not a lot of water, and so the writing was on the wall in a sense,” she said. “But on the other hand, we’ve done everything we possibly can to conserve water and use every drop.”

The heat dome descended when many dry seeded crops were flowering, including lettuce, onion and mustard seeds. Temperatures over 90 degrees inhibit seed formation, resulting in lower yields and lower germination rates in the seeds that survived, she said. Wet seeded crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos, were two weeks behind because of the smoke in August.

With temperatures remaining above 20 degrees through the winters, insect predation has increased, with less die-off than the historical norm, she said.

In her work with the Oregon State University Small Farms Program, Powell said she has heard of farmers moving to the Willamette Valley, Oregon Coast, the Midwest and elsewhere in search of better climate. Calls from interested new farmers have significantly declined, she said.

“The sense is that this is not as friendly a place to grow as it has been in the past,” Powell said. “That’s my impression of ‘21.”

“It really is about grieving what has been and what we see agriculture as, and adapting to something new,” she continued. “We need to embrace the fact that things are going to change, that agriculture is going to look different, and in some ways, there are opportunities here as well.”

For Josh Cohen, owner of the certified organic Barking Moon Farm in the Applegate Valley, many factors have influenced the farm’s capacity to produce, from labor shortages to climate change. This summer, Cohen lost a field manager and transitioned from overseeing production to active field work, taking on additional staff duties.

“On a good year, a normal year, labor is very difficult for me to come by on the farm, and this year it seemed near impossible to get people to show up or to find anybody,” Cohen said. “So rather than try to fight that, I pared down my production quite a bit, to about half of what it was this last year.”

Warmer winters fail to kill off bugs and disease, and general dryness has prompted some farming in the shoulder seasons using “season extension tools” such as greenhouses, Cohen said.

“I’m having to relearn how to use some of these tools at certain times of the year, because where I’ve learned the whole suite of crops to grow each month in these greenhouses, it’s now too hot in those greenhouses at certain times in the spring for plants to survive,” he said. “So I either need to choose different crops or need to start modifying the greenhouses so that they can increase air flow and lower temperature.”

After two to four weeks of smoke impacting sunlight on the crops, Cohen starts to see the difference. Greenhouse plant starts in the smoke look pale and peaked, he said.

Kathy O’Leary, owner of Valley View Orchard and Long Walk Vineyard in Ashland, said poor air quality and smoke did not affect her trees and vines as significantly because the property faces south, with a lot of airflow. But employees felt the impact of having to wear ventilators while working outside, O’Leary said.

The property includes 35 acres of orchard planted around 1900 and 10 acres of vineyard planted in the early 2000s, when O’Leary took over following three generations of the Wagner family. The orchard features 28 varieties of fruit.

A canal built in the 1920s stretching the top of the property formerly used open-gate flooding to irrigate — while not “practical or desirable” today, O’Leary said, this summer they made it work.

“When the drought happened and we were suddenly faced with: The water is going off in two weeks, we found a way to fill and use drainage canals to water as much as we could before it was turned off,” O’Leary said. “That old infrastructure was what we began to take advantage of.”

Also facing a drainage issue, Valley View Orchard left a hanging crop this year for the first time and only harvested a few rows of Bosc pears that received enough water at the bottom of the hill to produce decent-sized fruit.

Tree fruit harvest was small across the region, O’Leary said, and by the time Oregon came to harvest, California packing houses had already filled with the state’s own small fruit, leaving no room except for rare large fruit. Previously, the orchard had no trouble selling an entire crop, she said.

O’Leary said her farm tends to lose labor right at the time hemp and cannabis operations need labor and can pay more, which typically coincides with the Bartlett pear harvest.

As a result of the heat dome, nice-looking cherries and apricots turned to mush in storage boxes, she said. The orchard lost about 100 small fruit trees younger than five years old in the heat.

Once the Talent Irrigation District shut off, hand-watering techniques on the orchard’s 10,000 trees included rigging up 300-gallon totes to water one row at a time, using the sprayer as a watering truck and irrigating with catch water off the roof, O’Leary said.

Compared to the typical May-start, September-stop cycle of TID, this year the irrigation season opened May 26 and closed July 19.

“We used everything we had and we worked every day with three people watering those trees during the worst of it,” O’Leary said. “A rough year all around, basically.”

The vineyard has generally been dry farmed on a drip system since it was planted, and good-looking fruit this year signifies that the plants have achieved a deep root system that can survive whatever water is available year by year, O’Leary said. Older fruit trees also showed some “deep-rooted resistance” that has aided them for more than a century.

“It’s a promising world for grapes; it’s not a promising world for pears,” O’Leary said. “[Pears] are a good size and they take a lot of water, and they like to be wet the whole season, and they like a very cold winter.”

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said recent efforts in the Legislature have focused on helping farmers recover from harsh seasons and adapt for the long-term.

During a special session in mid-December, the state Legislature approved $100 million for drought relief, with about $40 million in forgivable loans to farmers who sustained crop losses in the past year, and $1.5 million dedicated to a small farmer relief fund. Marsh said the starting amount is “seed money” for an ongoing effort to collect government and philanthropic funds to support farmers.

Also included in the drought package, Marsh said, is support for irrigation districts, technical assistance for small farmers applying for federal funding, and research into drought-resistant crops and strategies.

“We are going to have to rebuild our irrigation systems, we are going to have to invest in water in a way that we’ve never had to invest before, and it’s going to be extremely expensive, but there is no alternative,” Marsh said. “We’re going to have to look at every strategy possible in order to provide the supports that farmers need to figure out how to negotiate this new world as it continues to change.”

As some farmers express concern about water use on cannabis and hemp farms, Marsh said passage of House Bill 3000 in the June special session gave more “teeth” to local law enforcement to target “blatantly illegal” operations. The Legislature has also allocated $25 million to support code compliance, law enforcement and water masters, Marsh said.

Some legal cannabis and hemp operations could benefit from instruction on better water usage, but hundreds of illegal operations present a much larger issue, she said. The $25 million package grants water masters additional personnel to consult with legal businesses and offer guidance on water usage, she said.

“We know that there are people who are using water either for illegal operations or using water illegally on legal operations,” Marsh said. “But we have a drought, so our illegal diversion of water is not the reason my Christmas tree has no needles right now, it’s because we are just not getting the rain and the snow pack that we need.”

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.