Dan Chin usually farms 900 hundred acres of potatoes, onions, grain and hay in Klamath Falls. This year he expects to plant only 400 acres.
The Klamath River Basin’s drought spells a dire year for farmers like Chin already suffering from last year’s bad commodity prices. Many hope to simply survive.
Tracey Liskey, who farms hay in Merrill, won’t be reducing crops on his 1,600 acres because of his property’s three wells. “I’ll get by,” Liskey says. “[But] we’re all going to take a hell of a hit this year.”
Upper Klamath Lake’s water level is at a near historic low due to low rain and snowfall. Gov. Ted Kulongoski issued a drought declaration on March 17 for the Klamath Basin area that encompasses Klamath County and parts of Jackson, Douglas, Deschutes and Lake counties. Agricultural interests have historically competed with environmental and tribal interests to protect endangered salmon and suckerfish. Farmers expect to receive 30% to 40% of the water they would normally get for irrigation. Officials say that is enough water to irrigate 150,000 acres of the basin’s 428,000 farmed acres.
Farmers do not know when irrigation will start. Federal Bureau of Reclamation rescinded its decision on March 30 that irrigation would begin in mid-May. “We’re just dealing with complete uncertainty,” says Belinda Stuart, the outreach and program coordinator of the Klamath Water Users Association.
The basin’s cash crops of hay, grain, potatoes and onions typically are planted in April and May. Farmers are only planting cover crops like alfalfa to prevent soil erosion. “We’re just holding the ground so it won’t go to the neighbors,” Chin says.
The drought’s effects on the basin’s $300 million agricultural industry will also affect other sectors. Banks financing farmers expect loan requests to increase. Many farmers still struggle with debt accrued in 2001 when irrigation was shut down halfway through the season during a similar drought. Mitch Stokes, a credit officer with Northwest Farm Credit Services, located in Salem, says it is becoming harder for farmers to get loans. Banks are taking actions such as canceling revolving lines of credit, only issuing credit lines that reduce as payments are made, and securing credit with a farmer’s crop.
Klamath County businesses selling equipment, seed and fertilizer rely on farmers almost exclusively for business. Many of them expect to be hit just as hard with revenues declining anywhere from 35% to 75%. Layoffs and putting employees on work-share programs are also expected. “When you take [farming] away completely, that shuts the dollars down,” says Ron Johnson, the president of Pelican Tractor in Klamath Falls.
Jennifer Simons, the Farm Service Agency’s executive director in Klamath County, says some farmers will go bankrupt, lose their farms or leave the Klamath area as some did in 2001. “Ultimately, there is nothing you can do to prepare for the long-term economic effect it will have,” Simons says.