High Desert drought affects Sisters agriculture
Last updated 8/18/2021 at Noon
Waves of record-high temperatures, combined with low rainfall and dwindling snowmelt needed to replenish aquafers and river systems, are affecting Sisters Country. Farmers and ranchers have known for years that the area is in trouble. How it’s affecting them varies based on how they get their water and what kind of agricultural practices they have in place. Efforts focus on maximizing available water while minimizing losses through water-saving practices.
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (Drought.gov), June 2021 was the driest year over the past 127 years. One hundred percent of Deschutes County is at least D2 – Severe Drought, 55.31 percent is considered D4 – Exceptional Drought status. Dry conditions result in less production and food for people and livestock. Reservoirs and lakes are low and irrigation water is scarce.
As the cost of doing business increases, hay prices are going up as yields decrease. Many folks in agriculture have lost most or some of their yields. Irrigation districts are reducing water available to nourish parched crops already adversely affected by scorching temperatures. Fire risk is elevated and wildlife are moving outside normal habitats seeking safety and diminishing water sources.
Among local food farmers and ranchers, there’s a mixture of optimism, worry, and innovation. Sarahlee Lawrence and husband, Ashanti Samuels, grow crops and raise livestock using water from the Three Sisters Irrigation District (TSID). Rainshadow Organics is 15 miles northeast of Sisters and has been in production for over 25 years.
Lawrence explained that TSID is the oldest irrigation district in Central Oregon and is entirely piped.
“Part of the pipelining project included that we all do irrigation efficiency and modernization upgrades to our farms,” she said. “It provides a lot of stability to our water. We’re also the only district that uses Whychus Creek as our water source.”
The water-saving efforts undertaken by food farmers in TSID were made possible through the National Resource Conservation Service. The government agency dates back to the 1930s when they were called the Soil Conservation Service. Currently, they provide America’s farmers and ranchers with financial and technical assistance to voluntarily put conservation on the ground, which helps the environment as well as agricultural operations like Rainshadow Organics.
Currently, Lawrence has access to 40 percent of the water normally allocated to the farm.
“Because of the drought, we only have 40 percent of our farm in active production,” she said. “But our use and how it’s delivered is very efficient. Farmers know we’ve been in a drought for the last three years. This is not new at all. I raise high-value crops on less acreage than I have. As an organic farmer, I invest in future years via drought-resistant cover crops that support my soil community and prevent erosion and dry ground. Dry ground with no plants is the worst possible thing for soil.”
Hobbs Margaret of Sisters Cattle Company is focused on bringing balance and harmony to the cattle industry.
“I do ultra-high density grazing or total grazing. There’s only 20 practitioners in the country who do it. That’s what the ecology demands for it to be healthy,” he said.
Margaret’s cattle graze Indian Ford Meadow east of Sisters Eagle Airport.
“I take my mother cows across those pastures twice at ultra-high density,” he said. “I got a call from a neighbor who said in 16 years they’ve never seen the meadow so green during a drought. High density is what nature designed. What resulted is beautiful, fresh topsoil, which improves the soil and ecology. It’s not how much rain you get; it’s how well you keep the rain that you do have. With irrigation it’s how well the soil holds on to that water. The practices are improving the ability for microbes and fungi to live in the soil.”
Karen Swaner and her family own Cascade Mountain Pastures located off of Highway 126. They raise grass-fed lamb, cattle, goats, and chickens for eggs. The lack of spring rain meant less grazing and the need to purchase more hay.
Swaner mirrored Lawrence’s appreciation for the TSID piping project over the last 20 years.
“We’ve had better water than most irrigators in our area or districts,” she said. “Because it’s piped there are less losses. We’re down to 40 percent water, but we’ve been able to keep grasses growing.
“The other big thing is hay and feed prices are through the roof. It’s hard to get hay. Local hay comes from Culver and Madras area, where they’re way down on water. Chicken feed prices are crazy too. We had to raise prices, something we haven’t done for years. The heat has been stressful on the animals. We’re a bit more used to watching for drought. We water by what we see on the mountain. It’s harder on irrigators who rely on large reservoirs. A multi-year drought brought drastic cuts for them. People need to realize it has a direct impact on their friends, neighbors, and the foods they eat,” said Swaner.
Seed to Table Executive Director Audrey Tehan knows she’s fortunate to be able to utilize a 20-year-old agricultural designated well on the three-acre farm off East Black Butte Avenue.
“We updated from metal handlines to wobbler systems to help conserve water,” she said. “There are always more steps we can continue to take, like not watering in the middle of the day, more closely measuring water use, and specific evapotranspiration rates that impact how much water one needs on any given day.”
Tehan knows the pain of working hard and still losing a crop.
“I cannot possibly imagine the stress many farmers are having to endure this season if they rely mainly on instream water rights — which have been cut down drastically,” she said. “It’s a farmer’s worst nightmare, to watch your crops dry up. I think it’s a time to show great support in any way to these farmers and acknowledge the global (50 percent of all hybrid carrot seed is grown in Jefferson County) and local impact of this drought which will be significant for years to come. It’s important for people to realize how intricately connected the groundwater is with the surface water here.
“The hard part about water conservation when utilizing a well — such as all the water we receive in our houses across town — is that there is no vision for the daily drawdown,” Tehan said. “We cannot directly see the impacts of this seemingly infinite resource — however it is quite finite.”