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Bruce and Helle Ruddenklau near the pond on their property created by an earthen dam. The captured water allows the Ruddenklaus to diversify their farm operation as well as creating a haven for wildlife on the property.
August 14, 2012
AMITY -- Bruce and Helle Ruddenklau wrestled with a decision of either finding a farm in the Willamette Valley to call their own or returning to Bruce's native New Zealand about the time they got married 20 years ago.
Had they known beforehand what awaited them on their farm near the Polk and Yamhill county line, one wonders if they would be Kiwis -- citizens of New Zealand -- today.
The picturesque property had previously been used for dryland farming, but saw minimal crop rotation -- which makes it less productive -- and the same herbicide program year after year -- which translates to highly resistant weeds.
The Ruddenklaus extensively utilize a no-till planting drill that prevents soil erosion and saves time on field preparation, allowing them to work a field earlier than a conventional drill.
Their first wheat season was "disastrous," yielding 47 bushels per acre for wheat -- a strong yield is three times that. In the late 1990s, they lost an entire parcel of spring grass planted near Rickreall.
That prompted the Ruddenklaus to give no-till planting a try in 2001.
The method is valued because it prevents soil erosion and saves time on field preparation, but at the time, was relatively unused in this part of the Willamette Valley.
They put in spring peas -- "and it was a slam dunk," Bruce said. "We saw the soil structure improve, we saw better water absorption and there was no runoff during the winter."
The method allowed them to grow a wide array of seed crops. And with farming operations that span 1,000 acres in Polk and Yamhill counties, the Ruddenklaus have been willing to experiment with conservation farming methods.
Helle Ruddenklau describes how a no-till planting method inserts a seed at the proper depth with minimal soil disruption, creating an optimal environment for growth.
That can range from irrigation systems -- linear pivots -- with low-hanging sprinkler heads to reduce water evaporation to strategically-placed nesting platforms for raptors around grass fields to control voles.
"There's a lot of management involved in being successful with conservation farming, but that's fun," Bruce said. "Maybe it works great and maybe it fails ... but you have to be flexible."
Helle said most of how they operate isn't really unique of what most farmers do today.
"You have to stay profitable, but at the same time I don't know very many farmers who aren't aware of what they do to the land," she said. "You work in the soil every day and you don't want to do anything to harm it."
Helle was born in Denmark and lived there until her family moved to Dayton in 1984. She met Bruce -- who comes from a sheep and grain farming family -- in 1989 in New Zealand on an Oregon State University Exchange program. After "chasing her back here," their families loaned them enough money to acquire some acreage near Amity in 1991. They married a year later.
A linear irrigation system with low hanging sprinkler heads produces less evaporation loss than a high pressure sprinkler head, saving water and power at the pump.
From the outset, they've tried to keep their eye on incentive programs and research that could prove beneficial, said Bruce, who also runs an agricultural commodities trucking business.
During the mid-1990s, they participated in a four-year study by OSU to evaluate the nitrogen requirements of winter wheat in Western Oregon; the Ruddenklaus significantly reduced how much of the element they put on their crops, Helle said.
More recently, Oregon Department of Agriculture has put out bee traps on their land in an effort to track wild bees.
Other times, it's a matter of putting the landscape to work for them. Five years ago, the couple decided to utilize a natural draw on their land that funnels more than 2,000 acre feet of water toward Salt Creek during the wet season by building an earthen dam to hold back a portion of the excess.
Birds of prey are provided roosting platforms on the property, and help control rodent population.
"We had to have the Army Corps of Engineers sign off on it and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife deem this as a non-fish bearing waterway," Bruce said.
The resulting pond captures about 100 acre feet of water and allowed the Ruddenklaus to greatly diversify their farm with turnip seed and radish seed, sweet and feed corn, and green beans in addition to their dryland crops.
Sources like these are necessary for farmers on the west side of the valley who can't access rivers for irrigation, Bruce said.
"In Western Oregon, we have this natural resource that's pouring on us all the time," he said.
Besides being perpetual students, the Ruddenklaus are spokespeople for the industry.
They were one of four families in the United States to receive a National Outstanding Young Farmers award in 2009. The honor, sponsored by John Deere, is based on career progression, soil and water conservation practices and contributions to their community.
Members of the Oregon Farm Bureau, the Ruddenklaus provided tours to state legislative candidates in June to discuss water management and agricultural research. During the summer, they entertain visits for teachers through an OSU educational program that seeks to integrate agriculture into classroom curriculums.
"Farmers are a very small percentage of the population," Helle said. "I believe that we are good caretakers of the land and I want people to see that."