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The Agriculture Quarterly
Fall 2012
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Oregon ranchers fight fires to keep a home on the range
By Bruce Pokarney

 
For many folks who live west of the Cascades, southeast Oregon might as well be in another time zone. In fact, part of Malheur County is in the Mountain Time Zone. As the locals say, this is a corner of the state where, on a map, you will find the map’s legend. Towns are few and far between. But there is a community of ranchers and a rural economy hoping to maintain vitality in the face of changing federal land management policies, agricultural market shifts, and a recession. When an act of God strikes in the form of lightning—as was the case this summer—it takes several acts of people pulling together to keep their way of life from going up in smoke. Several major wildfires, along with many smaller ones that never made the news, burned about 1.3 million acres of southeast Oregon that provides habitat for wildlife and forage for cattle. That adds up to the largest contiguous burned acreage in state history—equivalent to more than a third of the Willamette Valley. It took heroic human effort to put the fires out and keep them from spreading even more. In the aftermath, it will take tremendous human effort to restore the burned landscape and devise a future approach to land management that avoids a repeat of this past summer.

Two days after Governor Kitzhaber toured the burn area and met with local leaders in Harney and Malheur counties this fall, Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba did the same—meeting with ranchers and rangeland scientists from Burns to Jordan Valley. Following one of the worst fire events in Oregon’s history, Coba’s wish is to find a way to mend and protect the area’s natural resources while keeping the ranchers in business.
 
 

Heroes of the sagebrush steppe

 
Hovering over the remains of both the 162,000-acre Miller Homestead fire in Harney County and the nearly 558,000-acre Long Draw fire in Malheur County, a small airplane piloted by Jordan Valley rancher Bob Skinner, Jr., carries ODA Director Coba for a bird’s eye view of the carnage left behind. The charred path extends to the far horizon.
 
“Everything above ground was burned, mile after mile after mile,” says Coba, after observing a moonscape-like terrain from several hundred feet aloft. What were once sagebrush plants now appear as small dark blots on the earth. The tops of bunchgrass and other native range plants wiped clean, although root systems appear to be in good shape in many areas. This is prime real estate for grazing and wildlife habitat, including sage grouse, one of the West’s critters of current interest when it comes to the future of rangeland economies.
 
Three months earlier, Skinner and other ranchers could see the gathering storm clouds. Lighting strikes are not uncommon in this part of Oregon, neither are fires. But this time, the conditions were ripe for cataclysm.
 
“Fire in the desert is a lot different than fire in the forest,” says Skinner. “The storms that come through here don’t just start a fire, they start a bunch of fires.”
 
Multi-federal agency teams battled the big blazes. They got tremendous help from local volunteer firefighters, led by ranchers such as Skinner.
 
“When we were called to go on the Long Draw fire, it was on the west side of Highway 95 and about 27,000 acres. When it jumped the highway and came into our jurisdiction, we rallied all of our people. The very next morning, it was at 300,000 acres. It went through our firefighters and through them and through them. It was that way for a day and a half. Had the Long Draw jumped the south fork of the Owyhee River, nobody knows where it would have stopped. It would have been in Idaho in 15 minutes. Our firefighters single-handedly held that fire away from the town of Rome without any aerial support or help.”
 
The fires took their toll in many ways. Local firefighters, many of them savvy with experience, came back devastated. They had never seen anything like it before.
 
“These are young, tough guys—in tears,” recalls Skinner. “Watching habitat go up in flames is one thing, but when you watch animals die in fires—I don’t care if it’s jackrabbits or coyotes—nobody wants to see animals burned up and die a slow death. The fire took the deer, it took the birds, it killed fish. Streams were running white with fish bellies.”
 
Fortunately, the casualty list did not include people. But it did include some of their structures and their livestock. A precise count of cattle mortality has not been completed, but the deaths and injuries certainly soared well into the hundreds. The number of grazing cattle displaced by the fire is several thousand.
 
The rural firefighters have received a lot of accolades and their success points to the need for more fire protection districts to be formed. Rapid response when the fire initially hits is the best strategy for avoiding the monster blazes.
 
“That’s where we come in on this thing,” says Skinner. “The agencies can’t respond as fast as we can. They don’t know the country and a lot of firefighting takes place at night in strange terrain.”
 
Self-preservation takes over, both on the individual and community level. When women drive out to the firefighters with cases of Gatorade or when 17 semis arrive in Burns carrying nearly 500 tons of hay grown and trucked by people around the region just wanting to help, it’s a sign that everyone is in it together. That kind of collaboration kept the 1.3 million scorched acres from topping the 2 million acre mark and it helped address the immediate impacts.
 

Science and land management

 
The perfect storm created the perfect wildfire. An unfortunate alignment of events preceded the catastrophe and, for some ranchers, it was all too predictable. Southeast Oregon was hit hard by drought conditions this year, making the land tinder dry. But relatively wet conditions the previous two years provided some of the best forage growth seen on the range in quite awhile. Combined with non-native invasive annual grasses, the spike in growth also created greater fuels for fire once the drought hit.
 
The ranching community believes additional grazing on these federal lands could have reduced some of that fuel load without damaging the landscape. The result might have saved a lot of acreage from burning while maintaining a good landscape condition.
 
Meeting with ranchers in Burns and Jordan Valley, Director Coba listened to frustrated cattlemen who want to avoid a repeat of July.
 
“There is concern about the federal government’s management of public rangelands,” says Coba. “We also know these agencies are often times in litigation over decisions they make. It really hampers their ability to be nimble in response to changing circumstances, such as these big fires.”
 
The Bureau of Land Management, which issues grazing permits and determines allotments for cattle, is also responsible for implementing recovery plans for the burned areas. Ranchers are hoping the federal agency provides more flexibility and tries some innovative approaches in the future.
 
Tony Svejcar of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is based at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns. His findings indicate invasive annual plants like cheatgrass and the noxious weed medusahead create fire hazards. These invasive grasses are also one of the largest risks to sagebrush steppe habitat and, thus, a significant threat to sage grouse. Svejcar says grazing can, when managed correctly, help reduce the fuel load on rangeland while establishing native bunchgrasses ahead of the invasives.
 
“We now have better information on plant responses to grazing after fire,” says Svejcar. “In general, if the rangeland was in good shape to start with, and minimal damage was done, then controlled grazing soon after the fire is not a problem.”
 
It’s too early to know how fast the ecological recovery will take place. In the short term, a lot depends on such factors as winter precipitation. BLM will do at least some re-seeding of desirable vegetation in the area destroyed by the Long Draw fire. But not enough resources are available to do much more at this time. If southeast Oregon is blessed with optimal conditions, ranchers hope their animals get a chance to graze by late next summer. Waiting an additional year could be challenging—especially given the price of feed. Some ranchers are already paying up to $200 a ton for hay.
 
“We aren’t as bad as some folks who lost everything, but a lot of cows had to be sent off for butchering,” says rancher Gary Miller, whose family has the dubious honor of being part of the name of one of the large fires.
 
Currently, some ranchers have found additional available pasture at a reasonable rate, others have purchased hay, some have received hay donated through the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association (OCA) and others may have to liquidate part of their herd in order to stay solvent. If grazing on federal lands is off-limits for two years, options may dry up faster than Oregon’s high desert. The work of ARS and Oregon State University’s research center gives science-based hope and opportunity of doing something different and effective.
 

A catalyst for change

 
OCA has actively responded to the great fires of 2012, facilitating relief efforts and now advocating for changes that could help both short and long-term recovery.
 
“As bad as the fire devastation was, hopefully it can be a catalyst for change,” says OCA President Curtis Martin, himself a rancher in Baker County. “This discussion can’t end at a community center in Jordan Valley. It goes beyond these ranchers. We hope this event will get those in high levels of government to sit down and address these issues, backed with good scientific data. We need to make sure our rural communities aren’t decimated any further and that the economy can grow.”
 
With the US Fish and Wildlife Service set to review the listing status of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), there is a lot at stake when it comes to averting a “spotted-owl of the prairie” scenario. Oregon’s congressional delegation has been contacted. The governor’s visit to the area also indicates a keen interest in developing solutions that restore and protect the habitat, but also sustain the region’s economic health—namely cattle ranching.
 
“We hope to put together meetings with BLM and other groups to come up with ideas on changing the past land management that has caused the problem we saw this summer,” says Harney County Commissioner and rancher Dan Nichols. “We can come up with an effective plan, but we’ll need help from federal agencies, ODA, the governor, and others to support the concept of collaboration. We need to break this fire cycle by looking at philosophical changes to get us back into positive land management.”
 
That’s the intent of the “SageCon” effort, an Oregon Solutions project co-convened by the Governor’s office, BLM and USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service with the counties, OCA, and others at the table. Through SageCon, the state is focused on proactively addressing sage grouse ESA-listing concern with a collaboratively developed plan that not only conserves sage grouse populations and associated wildlife habitat, but addresses the economic and community vitality of southeast Oregon. The Governor has indicated that policy changes are on the table and should be part of the SageCon discussion, including the ideas he heard from Svejcar, Nichols, OCA, and others while visiting Burns
 
In September, the Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board allocated $50,000 to ODA to help with short-term restoration efforts. That was matched with another $50,000 from the Governor’s Strategic Reserve Fund. Over the next couple of months, ODA will work with ranchers and federal land managers to determine how best to spend the money.
 
Despite the uncertainty of the next year or two, ODA Director Coba says some truths and opportunities have emerged from the chaos and ashes of the rangeland fires.
 
“In the future, there will be more scrutiny on how the federal government manages these lands, whether more aggressive management can better protect the landscape and wildlife, and how grazing, as a tool, can help. We are learning a lot from these fires. But we need to keep in mind that the people who live here and work the land fear for the future of their livelihood. These are multi-generational ranching families that care about their own animals and the wildlife. They love this land and want to help prevent future fire catastrophes.”
 
Even though this tragedy is playing out in a corner of the state, the area is home to environmental, economic, and cultural resources for all Oregonians.
 
“In Oregon, we value our rural communities and need to make sure we give them a chance to recover,” says Coba. “They are struggling right now but we want to provide encouragement and hope.”
 
Hopefully, the kind of lightning that struck the sagebrush steppe in July 2012 won’t strike twice. Or if it does, circumstances will have changed by then for the better.
 
 
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Board of Agriculture Profile: Sharon Livingston

Oregon’s agricultural history is rich with strong leaders who have sustained a way of life that predates statehood. Many of them have come from the cattle industry—a tough living that requires hard work and optimism. No one exemplifies the tireless efforts to help all of agriculture more than Sharon Livingston. When it comes to sticking up for Oregon’s farmers and ranchers, Sharon is always there. Now she has brought her time and talents to the Board of Agriculture.

“Oregon can be proud of its agricultural community and I am absolutely delighted with my appointment to the Board of Agriculture,” says Livingston. “I look forward to working with other members representing a broad spectrum of the production community.”

Sharon’s first home was on her grandmother’s homestead in Grant County. She always knew that ranching would be a focus of her life. Her father was a great horseman, cattleman, and hunter. She was with him at every opportunity, learning what it took to survive all the challenges facing agriculture. One of his greatest lessons was the value of education. Shortly after marrying Fred Livingston, a cowboy and calf roper, Sharon enrolled at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and pursued a career in education. Sharon became a teacher, was a successful high school volleyball coach, and raised three children. The career made it possible for Sharon and Fred to purchase the family’s ranch near Long Creek and continue operating it through the very difficult financial era of the 1980s. The hard work and perseverance paid off. Just this summer, the Livingston Ranch—which started as a 160-acre spread and has grown to 5,000 acres—was recognized as a Century Ranch in ceremonies at the Oregon State Fair.

In more recent years, Sharon has emerged as a leading voice of the cattle industry and a respected spokesperson on behalf of all Oregon agriculture. Long active in the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Sharon became the second woman elected president. Under her leadership, OCA tackled a number of issues critical to the industry including marketing, grazing, water, and protection from predators. Sharon’s ability to unify the cattle industry on these and other matters has benefited all farmers and ranchers. Praised for running a good meeting and keeping ranchers on track, Sharon completed her term as OCA president by leaving the organization in a position of strength and relevance.

“Agriculture, beef production, and education have been my life since I was a child,” says Livingston. “I have been privileged to work with innovators in all those fields.”

Sharon has often made the long trek from Eastern Oregon to the Willamette Valley to help tell agriculture’s story—especially to legislators who are willing to listen. No matter how long a drive it takes, she is one of the first to show up at important hearings and meetings, ready to deliver valuable testimony designed to help Oregon’s ag industry. Her staunch defense of farmers and ranchers has earned the respect and gratitude of the industry.

But there is no doubt that the cow-calf ranch that she still runs with her oldest son is where she most likes to be. The wide-open range and the way of life that goes back generations have a strong appeal to this All-American cowgirl. With her kids and grandkids nearby, Sharon is gratified to see a new generation of Livingstons ready to follow the trail she has blazed. Her experience and expertise will play well as part of the Board of Agriculture.

“It will be my pleasure to work to keep Oregon at the forefront of food production, so vital to our economy and to the welfare of those who benefit from procuring our safe and nutritious products.”
 
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Director's Column

By Katy Coba, ODA director

Anyone involved with agriculture knows that water is the lifeline that helps us raise crops and livestock. Despite all the grey and wet days of winter and early spring, Oregon relies heavily on irrigation to successfully produce the wonderful bounty we’ve all become accustomed to. Water holds the same value to environmental, recreational, and municipal uses in Oregon as well. With so many interests and a finite amount of water, no wonder the state feels the need to be strategic.

This summer, the State of Oregon launched its first Integrated Water Resources Strategy following its adoption by the Water Resources Commission. As noted in a news release announcing the adoption, “the strategy provides a blueprint for understanding and meeting Oregon’s water quantity, water quality, and ecosystem needs now and into the future.”

After an incredible outreach effort to work with stakeholder groups, the Integrated Water Resources Strategy has been crafted to identify where Oregon currently stands in terms of how the state manages water, where there may be some gaps, and where we need to be as we move into the future. I consider the adoption as the end of phase one. Up next is the implementation process.

Looking back over the hard work done the past couple of years to create the strategy, it is very clear that Oregon agriculture has been at the table and is welcome to stay. The legislature recognized the importance of agriculture when it directed the Oregon Department of Agriculture and two other state agencies to work with the Oregon Water Resources Department to put the strategy together. ODA and the Board of Agriculture have been fully engaged in the issue and the process. The board, in particular, expressed its support for the Integrated Water Resources Strategy while making sure key components were highlighted. Oregon agriculture needs to be assured of adequate irrigation water to meet future demands for quality products. Developing additional water storage and providing access to farmers and ranchers is a top priority in the eyes of the board and those of us who are advocates for Oregon agriculture.

Of course, all of us recognize that agriculture must be committed to water conservation and efficiency. Climate change and a reduced snowpack require new approaches to using water. There is also the water quality side of the strategy. ODA’s Agricultural Water Quality Program will strive to be even more effective in managing and improving agriculture’s contribution to the quality of our water. Our producers must also recognize the other interests that require ample and clean water, including fish and recreation interests.

Clearly, water is absolutely critical for agriculture. It’s critical for our future. We know that when you are able to irrigate, the value of the crops you get from that effort is higher than the value of non-irrigated crops. We also know that if we could develop more irrigated crop land in the state, we could drive up agriculture’s contribution to Oregon’s economy and job creation.

ODA’s staff is involved in the process. Moving forward, we know new resources are needed. We will ask for a staff position in the next biennium to help with the continuing implementation of the strategy. It is certainly a priority for the Oregon Department of Agriculture to represent agriculture’s interests.
There are still some questions about which pieces of the Integrated Water Resources Strategy implement first. We will make sure the ag community has an opportunity to actively participate, to have its voice heard. After all, what could be more important than water, agriculture’s lifeline?

 
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ODA completes its first ag water quality report
The Oregon Department of Agriculture has released a new, comprehensive report assessing the state’s agricultural water quality and ODA’s program to address ag water quality issues. While ODA’s Agricultural Water Quality Management Program was created by the state legislature in 1993, the report is the agency’s first attempt at describing, in full detail, the program’s status and its effectiveness.

The report provides a history of the program, ODA’s relationship with soil and water conservation districts in achieving water quality progress, ODA’s coordination with other agencies and organizations, stakeholder involvement, and compliance with water quality regulations. The report ends with a section on monitoring and a series of maps.

Oregon Agricultural Water Quality Report


 
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Fair exhibit, excellent reception

Oregon’s county fair season hit its stride this summer with a visually attractive exhibit that reminds Oregonians just how important agriculture is. Seven county fairs proudly displayed a new traveling exhibit called, “Telling the Oregon Agriculture Story.” With an expected 1.5 million visitors attending county fairs in Oregon this year, chances were good that many fair goers this summer were able to learn more about agriculture.

“We wanted to bring county fairs back to their agricultural roots,” says Laura Barton, trade development manager with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “Many people don’t always think of a county fair as a place to learn about and connect with agriculture. So we were very excited about providing a colorful way to showcase interesting facts and important details of how Oregon agriculture contributes to the state’s economy and, specifically, to the communities where these fairs are located.”

Thanks to a $17,000 USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant awarded last year, ODA collaborated with the Oregon County Fair Commission and the Oregon Fairs Association to develop the mobile exhibit, which combines stunning photography of specialty crops with fun and interesting facts as part of an interactive module that can travel from fair to fair. The exhibit covers the top 20 specialty crops in Oregon with industry-specific information to complement the photos. While many of the messages remain the same no matter the venue, there will be some customized information specific to the county in which a fair is located. Marion, Jackson, Coos, Curry, Benton, Umatilla, and Clackamas county fairs hosted the exhibit this inaugural season.

“Next year, we hope the exhibit travels to even more fairs,” says Barton. “We feel the messages resonated and people had a ‘wow, I had no idea,’ moment.”

ODA documented this year’s experiences involving the exhibit, will share it with all county fair managers this fall and winter, and will encourage them to build connections with community partners for next year.

 
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Oregon welcomes more century farms & ranches

On a beautiful sunny day at the Oregon State Fair, 16 families from across the state received recognition for operating a century farm or ranch while two families received awards for operations that have been ongoing for 150 years. This brings the total of Oregon Century Farms and Ranches to 1,144.

The farm and ranch families being honored in 2012 are:

    * Hal Balin, Klamath County
    * John Andrew Bodnar, Klamath County
    * Lyle Defrees, Baker County
    * Milton & Delores Fanning, Polk and Yamhill counties
    * Carrie and Ron Gerber, Union County
    * David & Kari Hiebenthal, Polk County
    * John and Sandra Kalandar, Clatsop County
    * Ed & Shirley Kerns, Klamath County
    * Edward Leavy, Marion County
    * Sharon Livingston, Grant County
    * Brenda Morgan and James Baldwin, Lake County
    * Mark & Kellene Payne, Yamhill County
    * Schierling Family Trust, Polk County
    * James and Barbara Jo Sly, Lane County
    * Maxine Strubhar, Marion County
    * Mark Walkley, Multnomah County

Two Sesquicentennial awards will be given to Oregon families who have continuously farmed portions of their original family acreage for 150 years or more. This year’s honorees are:

    * Ramsey McPhillips, Yamhill County
    * Mark Talcott Trust, Douglas County.

Twenty-five families have now received this prestigious sesquicentennial award.
 
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Starlings beware, falcons patrol Oregon blueberry fields

Some of Oregon’s larger blueberry growers this summer enlisted a winged warrior in the battle against starlings. The use of falcons to ward off a fellow bird species that can cause thousands of dollars in crop damage is showing very positive results and may be a growing trend among Willamette Valley blueberry farms.

“People forget that starlings are an invasive species and are more than just a nuisance pest to Oregon agriculture,” says Oregon Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Lisa Hanson. “Growers are trying to find effective tools to protect their crops from bird damage. It is encouraging to see that the use of trained falcons is working while providing an environmentally-friendly method of controlling pest pressure from starlings.”

A decade ago, Gingerich Farms of Canby was dealing with a huge population of starlings that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud.

“We have a couple of towers on the farm and as soon as we would chase the birds out of the blueberries, they would flock to the towers and watch us,” says owner Verne Gingerich. “As soon as we departed, they were back in the fields. The number of starlings was astronomical.”

That’s when Gingerich met Getty Pollard and his trained falcons. Pollard’s Oregon-based company, B-1RD, had already been providing service to wine grape growers in California by having his falcons fly over and around the fields to keep starlings and other birds from eating the crops. The starlings at Gingerich Farms were smart enough to know that the falcon was a threat. Their response was to leave the immediate area.

“With the falcons on site, the starlings no longer have security in our towers,” says Gingerich. “It has been a real efficient way of patrolling birds. This year, we’ve seen starlings around the perimeter. There is no doubt that if the falcons weren’t on our farm, the starlings would be back in our fields.”

Oregon’s blueberry production is at an all-time high. The value of the crop has never been greater. There is plenty of incentive to protect the berries in the field from unintended consumers. Traditional tools such as propane cannons and other noise makers, mylar tape, and balloons may work on smaller operations some of the time, but can’t match the efficacy of the falcon.

“Starlings are actually intelligent,” says Pollard. “They basically look at any of those other techniques and realize it’s not trying to kill them, it’s not chasing them, it hasn’t caught them, therefore they will ignore it just like they ignore a loud car driving by.”

Pollard uses some of the tools and techniques employed in traditional falconry, but has designed a complex system to effectively keep starlings away, not to hunt and kill.

“We are using trained falcons to basically harass and chase starlings in a given area at a very intense level for many hours of the day and for many weeks on end in order to create a predatory presence that is so intense that starlings don’t want to be in the area,” says Pollard. “We don’t even want starlings looking at the blueberry fields let alone flying over them.”

It’s not just the threat of starlings eating the crop that concerns growers. They also pose a food safety risk simply by flying over the fields and occasionally defecating on the berries. The feet of starlings can also spread plant diseases.

For the large operations such as Gingerich Farms, Pollard uses one falcon to patrol the area for up to eight straight hours, then rest that falcon and use another one, repeating the process daily for a couple of months straight. It takes that kind of intensity to provide the desired results, especially when patrolling a large area.

“We fly our falcons from ATVs and train them so they are used to the vehicles,” says Pollard. “We wear uniforms and look the same every day so our falcons recognize us as their only handler and don’t fly down on someone else traveling in an ATV. We spend three months training and conditioning these falcons prior to working blueberry fields for two months. After the season, we go south to California to protect wine grapes.”

Blueberry growers are beginning to band together to contract falcon services. Starlings will simply leave the fields that are patrolled for nearby fields that aren’t.

“I don’t want to treat a field and have a neighbor that has done nothing for control,” says Pollard. “I try to find all the blueberry fields in a given area and put everyone under the contract to keep starlings out of everybody’s fields.”

Blueberry grower Eric Pond of Jefferson is in his third year of using Pollard and his falcons to patrol several hundred acres of crops.

“It’s very simple, we don’t have any damage to our fruit from starlings anymore,” says Pond. “Before, we were using cannons and screechers. All of that was a pain that required a lot more people to do the job. With the falcons, it’s a clean and easy way to go. It fits our sustainability program too, as we try to work better with the environment. Falcons offer an effective way to deal with starlings. We don’t have to mess with it, we don’t have to think about it. It’s an expensive service, but I wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t pay for itself.”

Gingerich is mindful of being a good neighbor, too. The choice of using falcons to keep the starlings away literally keeps the peace.

“I’m located in a fairly heavy metro-pressured area,” he says. “We have a lot of small farms and people who work in Portland but like to live out here. If we use shotguns or cannons, they see that as intrusive. With a falcon, it’s effective but not intrusive.”

So the next time you are near a blueberry field, look up. You might see a fast moving bird of prey who is simply doing its job of patrolling the skies and protecting an important Oregon berry crop.
 
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Field corn production skyrockets in Oregon

It has been rare the past couple of decades for a new agricultural commodity in Oregon to crack the coveted top 10 list, in terms of sales or production value. The same 10 commodities routinely show up year after year. But thanks to increased acreage and high prices, field corn grown for grain and silage has joined the party, ranking ninth with a value of nearly $109 million in 2011.

“We’ve had a sizable increase in acreage, the past few years here in Oregon, plus a nice increase in price, add that together and it shows that the value of corn for grain and silage being sold has increased tremendously,” says Chris Mertz, state director of the Oregon field office of the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

Statistics generated by Oregon State University and NASS confirm the phenomenal growth. In 2000, the amount of corn for grain harvested was at 5.2 million bushels and 29,000 acres. In 2009, production jumped to 8.6 million bushels and 36,500 acres. In 2010, it had grown to 10.1 million bushels and 44,900 acres. Last year, production hit 14 million bushels and 57,700 acres.

Corn grown for silage has increased just slightly the past dozen years. The amount harvested last year in Oregon was 618,000 bushels on 21,750 acres.

Sweet corn, consumed by people and grown for either processing or the fresh market, is counted as a separate commodity. It’s production value in Oregon hovers around $33 million and is not ranked nearly as high as corn grown for grain and silage.

When you combine all the field corn grown in Oregon—for grain or silage—the 2011 numbers are enough to boost it onto a list usually reserved for such agricultural mainstays as beef, wheat, onions, and potatoes. The production value of corn for grain or silage over the past two years has more than doubled—going up 111 percent. There is one simple explanation for the recent increase.

“In Oregon, most of the corn is being sold for feed to help support our dairies and feedlots,” says Mertz. “Feed costs have gone up tremendously for all livestock producers in the country. Oregon is no exception. Right now, it appears to be much cheaper to grow field corn locally, or source it locally, rather than hauling it in from the Midwest and facing all the transportation costs.”

Those skyrocketing feed costs are reflected in the price now paid for field corn. The price last week was more than $8 a bushel, which is an all-time high on the Chicago Board of Trade. Prices have the potential to still go up this season as supply and demand impacts all of the nation’s corn industry. Last year’s average price for corn grown in Oregon for grain was $6.95 per bushel compared to $5.03 in 2010, $4.23 in 2009, and $2.40 in 2000. The increase in price appears to parallel the expansion in acreage and production of field corn in Oregon the past decade.

“As row crop farmers choose which crops to grow, they look for ones that have demand and can turn a profit,” says Jim Krahn of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association. “Corn is one of those crops this year. There is going to be a large demand by the livestock industry for both grain and silage.”

But for many dairy or feedlot operators, growing the corn themselves is not about dollars, but sense. They hope to profit by reducing feed costs while providing a good source of feed for livestock.

“If livestock producers, including dairies, have the land available to grow corn, without question they are,” says Krahn. “There is an estimated 2,000 acres or more being grown in Tillamook County. Four years ago, there was none. This is being done to reduce the cost of purchased corn. Corn is a valuable source of starch in a cow’s diet. It is very difficult to replace with other grains and maintain the same level of milk production.”

While there is considerable field corn grown in Malheur County and a relatively small amount grown in the Willamette Valley, North Central Oregon is showing the greatest increase in production of corn for grain and silage. Nearly 60 percent of the state’s field corn acreage is in the area that includes Morrow and Umatilla counties. That is also the location of Oregon’s largest dairies and beef cattle feedlots.

“A portion of the growth in that part of Oregon is to service the dairy and beef cattle in the area,” says Krahn. “Again, the price of corn is what is driving this change. A diary producer is raising the corn in an attempt to lower feed costs. If a row crop farmer is growing corn, it’s an attempt to raise profits per acre.”

Throughout the country, corn is grown where the livestock are being fed. With so much beef, dairy, hog, and poultry production taking place in the Midwest, it makes sense that so much of the nation’s field corn has traditionally been grown in the farm belt states. In recent years, a huge amount of corn has been used to produce ethanol. While Oregon now has ethanol plants, most of the corn used for production has been shipped in from the Midwest. Oregon’s field corn increase in recent years has not been tied to the state’s ethanol production.

This year’s devastating Midwest drought has a tremendous impact on corn production in that part of the nation. That could give Oregon producers an even greater reason to plant corn of their own in the near future.

“It does create a bigger need for local corn production today, what happens in the future, no one knows,” says Krahn. “By growing more corn, a dairy producer doesn’t need to rely on someone else to supply it at a very high cost.”

The meteoric rise in production of corn for grain and silage in Oregon the past decade has nothing to do with today’s Midwest drought. But with feed costs gradually—and sometimes sharply—increasing since 2000, both row crop farmers and livestock producers who have available land and enough water for summer irrigation have been convinced to grow field corn. It appears to be a wise investment.

Still, Oregon pales in comparison to other states when it comes to field corn production.

“It’s nice to say that Oregon had 83,000 acres of field corn planted last year,” says Mertz. “But there are seven counties in the US that planted more than 300,000 acres of field corn. Oregon has a ways to go.”
 
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Net farm income approaches record high

Oregon farmers and ranchers enjoyed one of the best bottom lines in recent times last year thanks to a combination of strong agricultural production and good prices for many of the state’s crops and livestock. Despite concerns over historically high expenses, Oregon’s 2011 net farm income in shows continued recovery from the impact of the recession.

“Overall, it was a great year,” says Brent Searle, analyst with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “Oregon net farm income last year nearly doubled from 2010 and was the highest it has been since 2004. The industry has come out of the trough and many sectors appear to have turned a corner.”

A newly released economic snapshot of Oregon agriculture shows net farm income at nearly $1.03 billion in 2011. That’s an improvement from the $519 million recorded in 2010 and continues a new trend of improving numbers after five years of decline.

Net farm income is the amount retained by agricultural producers after paying all business-related expenses and is considered an important indicator of the agricultural economy’s overall health. Think of it as the farmer’s paycheck. Out of that paycheck, growers make payments on land purchases, family living expenses, and family health insurance. Statistics provided by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) show net farm income is cyclical. They also show that the average payout for Oregon farmers and ranchers may not be as high as you would expect from a near record-breaking year for net farm income.

“On the whole, we are doing better, and that’s the good news,” says Searle. “But the income gains are not shared among all producers. The average farmer in Oregon earned $27,000 last year, even though the overall net farm income for the state exceeded a billion dollars.”

With Oregon’s diverse agriculture, some producers did far better than the average while others, not so well. Much of that depends on the size of the operation and certainly what they are producing.

The overall value of production increased last year. Crop production in 2011 jumped to more than $3.3 billion—an increase of about 23 percent, while the value of Oregon livestock production was more than $1.3 billion—an increase of about 18 percent.

“Beef and dairy had good prices last year,” says Searle. “The value of beef production was up 34 percent and dairy products were up 28 percent. Crops did well too. Wheat set a record high in sales at more than $466 million, which was a 53 percent increase from 2010. Other field crops, such as hay, corn, and barley enjoyed their highest sales in years. Sweet cherries and blueberries have increased their production value tremendously the past couple of years. Again, Oregon’s diversified agriculture has helped overall net farm income.”

However, what’s good news for some producers is not so good for others. The higher prices received by feed crop growers were paid by livestock owners. The bottom line would have been much rosier for cattle and dairy operators, for instance, had they not been required to pay high prices for feed. In some cases, higher feed prices have led to herd liquidation, which initially depresses market prices, but then causes the prices consumers pay for beef and dairy cattle to rise. Prices will likely stay up in 2012 and 2013, while inventories remain tight.

Although net farm income has increased, cost control remains a major challenge and keeps income numbers from being even better. Last year’s total farm expenses were a record high for Oregon at $4.3 billion.

“Feed costs were up almost 50 percent for livestock operators, fertilizer costs went up 36 percent, and the cost of petroleum fuels increased 28 percent,” says Searle.

While rent and interest expenses were relatively flat—certainly good news for the expense side—labor costs were on the rise again.

“The cost to pay farm employees—largely because we have so many specialty crops that require hand harvesting—is the single largest expense for Oregon farmers. Last year, it topped $1 billion. In fact, overall labor costs continue to be higher in Oregon than net farm income. In other words, the total paycheck to Oregon’s farmworkers was larger than the total paycheck to Oregon’s farmers. Both need to grow for ag to remain viable.”

It will be late summer of 2013 before this year’s balance sheet is finalized. So far, it appears many commodities are once again doing well even as livestock producer remain challenged by high feed costs.
 
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Back to school with FoodCorps

When kids headed back to school this fall, so did the second class of FoodCorps service members in Oregon. This year’s class includes five service members and a new fellowship position to serve as a program coordinator. This corps of leaders will dedicate a year of full-time public service in school food systems. Tasks include expanding hands-on nutrition education programs, building and tending school gardens, and sourcing healthy, local food for school cafeterias.

This year, Oregon gains Union County as a service site in addition to last year’s counties—Multnomah, Tillamook, Marion, and Benton. The Oregon Department of Agriculture manages the state’s FoodCorps program and will host the FoodCorps fellow. Last year’s service members served more than 8,000 students, generated over 300 volunteers, and helped grow almost 2,000 pounds of donated food.

The new FoodCorps Fellows Program brings a returning corps member to serve as a team leader, supporting and guiding the service members in their state, and embarking on special projects of their own design. Working at ODA as part of the program is Portland native, Emily Ritchie.

“When asked to be the fellow at ODA, I jumped at the opportunity to be involved in broader change for our food producers and kids,” says Ritchie. “After serving in Tillamook County last year, I look forward to focusing on a special project to bring Oregon seafood to schools across the state.”

The five FoodCorps service members will serve with the following organizations:

    * Chelsey Thomsen will serve with the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation in Marion County
    * Amoreena Treff will serve with the Corvallis Environmental Center in Benton County
    * Allyson Gardner will serve with Food Roots in Tillamook County
    * Jessica Polledri will serve with Growing Gardens in Multnomah County
    * Anina Estrem will serve with North Powder Charter School in Union County.

Each of Oregon’s five FoodCorps members will work on a common initiative—the Oregon Harvest for Schools promotion. Created by the Oregon Department of Education, the campaign features a monthly in-school promotion of featured produce items. Local school districts are encouraged to feature an Oregon fruit or vegetable every month in their school meal programs.

In Oregon and in other states, look for FoodCorps to be one of the many tools used to further the cause of farm to school efforts.

The five FoodCorps members in Oregon, as well as those in other sites around the nation, are committing to at least 1,700 hours of service over the next year. In exchange, the members receive a $15,000 stipend, health insurance, career mentoring, and a $5,500 education award upon completion of their service. The contributions they make to their respective communities should be well worth the investment as kids eat better, and learn more about food and agriculture, while local growers gain greater access to school lunch and breakfast programs.
 
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2012 Specialty Crop Grant awards announced
Oregon agriculture continues to benefit from federal funding aimed at boosting the competitiveness of the state’s fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, nursery crops, and other specialty crops. The Oregon Department of Agriculture has announced this year’s recipients of more than $1.49 million as part of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. In all, 22 projects are being funded, reaching a broad geographic swath of Oregon and a variety of specialty crops.

Over the past five years of the just expired US Farm Bill, Oregon has received more than $6 million in funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which has paved the way for 112 projects throughout the state.

“We are excited to announce this year’s 22 projects,” says Katie Pearmine, ODA’s Specialty Crop Grant Program Coordinator. “For a state like Oregon, where we grow more than 200 crops on about 37,000 farms, this program has been critical.”

This year’s projects generally aim to promote some of Oregon’s key specialty crop industries, develop new markets at home and abroad, address distribution bottlenecks, train the next generation of farmers, and strengthen food safety.

Geographically, this year’s projects appear to be the most diverse with projects in eastern, central, and southern Oregon to go along with the Willamette Valley. Both urban and rural communities are represented.

The 2012 projects address key components of Oregon agriculture. In the area of innovation, Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation and Development, located in the southern Willamette Valley, has been awarded $60,000 to develop a truffle production industry in Oregon, which carries a reputation as a “North American Capital” of the highly prized mushroom and is just one of three places in the world with its own native truffles.

There are also projects that support promotional programs for some of Oregon’s key industries. The Oregon Essential Oil Growers League has been awarded $16,500 to develop an Oregon mint grant that creates awareness of the high quality mint grown in the state. The Oregon Hop Commission has been awarded $46,958 to promote Oregon public hop varieties to Oregon craft brewers. Klamath Basin Fresh Direct LLC has been awarded $90,000 for promotional efforts aimed at continued market growth of fresh organic specialty potatoes.

Food safety projects include a $42,000 award to the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission to expand berry grower food safety training and a $90,000 award to Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center to strengthen food safety management systems for specialty crop production.

Other projects range from farm to school efforts—including an award of $23,630 to the North Powder Charter School—to developing an effective distribution model that can link specialty crop growers to wholesale food buyers. (Ecotrust has been awarded $57,710 for such a project.)

2012 funded projects
 
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Featured webpage: ODA public meetings calendar

 
Oregon public meeting law requires that governing bodies provide notice that is reasonably calculated to inform the public and all interested parties about the time, place and agenda of public meetings.
 
Oregon’s open data solution allows us to do just that! Agencies provide information about upcoming public meetings to one public dataset. This information can then be embedded in agency web pages wherever needed. Check it out.
 
Information about ODA public meetings and Oregon ag commodity commission meetings can be found at http://oregon.gov/ODA/Pages/meetings.aspx
(Or, select “calendar of public meetings” from our home page http://oregon.gov/ODA).
 
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Announcements

Oregon Soil and Water Conserv​ation Commission (SWCC) Quarterly Meeting

 
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
 
11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
 
Valley River Inn in Eugene, Oregon
 
The meeting agenda covers SWCC reports and strategic plan, advisor reports, updates on Soil and Water Conservation District programs and funding, and other agenda items.
 
 

Invasive Species Summit

 
November 16, 2012
 
Chemeketa Community College Viticulture Center, West Salem
 
 

Oregon State Board of Agriculture

 
November 28-29, 2012
 
Portland Oregon
 
 

Oregon InterAgency Noxious Weed Symposium

 
December 4, 5, and 6, 2012
 
LaSells Stewart Center, Corvallis, Oregon
 

Oregon State Weed Board Grant Program: Now accepting applications

 
Due December 14, 2012
 
 
Check out all the ODA public meetings
 
 
 
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