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Farming Water Worries

POLK COUNTY — With the recent days of rain came a heightened sense of urgency around Dallas’ Wildman Farm.    The warm, dry spring had ripened the orchard’s Royal Ann cherries early and nicely this year, said owner Pat Wildman. Abundant sunshine created flavors close to perfection, so it was time to harvest.    A very hurried harvest — on a fast track, ironically, to beat the sunshine forecast for later this week.    “If we get an 80-degree day, we are done,” she said. “We’ve just got to get them off the tree.”    Wildman fears with the recent moisture paired with rapid warming, the cherries will split. It’s happened before.    “You can hear them pop,” she said. “One year, 2005 or 2006, you could stand out in the orchard with a gorgeous crop and hear them pop.”    That shouldn’t happen this year, as Wildman’s picking crew Monday was perhaps a day or two from finishing.    Despite the rush at Wildman’s, this weekend’s shot of rain after an unusually dry April, May and June seems to have been a welcome sight for most farmers in the area. Graphic by Kathy Huggins Monthly total precipitation does not show a real trend, but National Weather Service hydrologists said that overall, springs and falls are wetter, with drier winters.    “There’s no more effective irrigation than rain. It irrigates everything at the same time,” said Jon Bansen of Double J Jerseys dairy near Monmouth, part of the Organic Valley co-op. “We could definitely use some more moisture.”    That is especially true for Bansen and other farmers who draw on the Luckiamute and Little Luckiamute rivers for irrigation. Andy Bryant, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Portland, said most of the Willamette Valley should be in good shape for irrigation thanks to a rainy February and March. But one exception is the Luckiamute, which could have below average stream flow this summer.    Bansen, who had already begun to irrigate his fields before the brief period of rain, is painfully aware of how critical water levels are heading into the dry season.    His grass needs about an inch of water a week to provide the feed for his cows.    “I’m not sweatin’ yet,” Bansen said. “We’ve got a lot of summer out ahead of us. A well-timed thunder storm can do lots of good. I’m not going to panic right now.”    That “wait and see” attitude is common among local farmers.    Ron Quiring, who raises a number of crops on his Rickreall farm, said it’s too early to begin making predictions on the outcome for the year. So far, though, his crops — including wheat, tall fescue, radish seed and red clover seed — are looking good.    “I wouldn’t call it a disaster year by any means,” he said. “It’s not a bummer crop, but I think we will have an average crop.”    If this week’s rain is the last of any significance, however, Quiring’s late-summer ripening crops — winter wheat, spring wheat, red clover and radish — could suffer. Quiring is primarily a dry farmer, so much depends on summer rain. Photo by Emily Mentzer Fields at Double J Jerseys dairy near Monmouth receive much-needed irrigation water on Friday afternoon. Moisture is needed to keep grass in grazing condition for cows.    “If they don’t get some moisture in the summer, it definitely makes a difference,” he said.    The same is true for Polk County’s Christmas tree farmers. Bob Schafer, the general manager for Noble Mountain Tree Farms, said established trees will do just fine in the heat. His concern is for the recently planted seedlings.    A dry spring enabled the farm to plant some seedlings early, giving them a better chance at establishing the root systems they need to survive the dry season. But not all seedlings were planted in that preferable time frame.    “We’ve been really fortunate with the little bit of rain we’ve had recently,” he said. “At this point we are looking good, but if we have extended drought into September, we could lose seedlings.”    Bryant said the long-term forecast does point to just that scenario — a dry summer with warmer-than-average temperatures.    “Really, what will cause stress for crops is if we have a stretch of really hot temperatures like the mid-90s or higher for several days,” Bryant said. “That’s not really something we can pin down weeks or months out, but that’s the kind of situation where they (farmers) would have to really pour on the water to deal with that.”    Whether that will be the case for the famously unpredictable weather in Oregon remains to be seen.    In the meantime, though, Wildman — who also raises water-loving blueberries — like other farmers, tries to roll with the punches as best she can    “I enjoy this,” she said of farming in Oregon. “(But) you’ve got to be willing to take the risk.”    

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