OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Eastern Oregon wheat farmers fear drought

07/02/1999

PENDLETON - In a year of record-setting rain, farmers and Oregon State University extension specialists in six eastern Oregon counties are monitoring a developing drought and predicting wholesale crop failures.

Farmers who irrigate crops have a plentiful supply of water from brimming reservoirs fed by a mountain snowpack that is 127 percent of normal. However, dryland farmers who rely solely on rainfall for crop moisture are seeing their fields wither in Umatilla, Grant, Morrow, Sherman and Union and Wasco counties, said Don Wysocki, an OSU extension Soil scientist at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center at Pendleton.

"We already have some fields that are complete failures," Wysocki said. "Even if it started raining right now, they wouldn't recover."

"Dryland (crops) are really bad," said Thomas Darnell, a horticulture extension agent in Milton-Freewater. "Green pea yields are terrible. Many fields will not return enough to cover production costs. The wheat crop is out of moisture, and it is one of the worst years in memory for cheat grass, too."

According to the Oregon Climate Service at OSU, figures for the region from Oct. 1 through the end of May indicate that it is 20-25 percent below average, with little precipitation since last winter. In Heppner in Morrow County, 8.8 inches of rain has fallen during what is traditionally the wettest portion of the year, compared to the normal of 11.2 inches.

La Grande's eight-month rainfall total ending in May was 10.81 inches, down from the average of 12.35 inches. Moro in Sherman County saw 7.54 inches of rain instead of 9.29 inches.

These rainfall totals have greater significance because historically those counties receive most of their annual 12 to 17 inches of rain by early May.

Farmer Chris Rauch, who lives about 30 miles southwest of Hermiston near the small community of Lexington, said he expects his crop of winter wheat to be a near-complete loss.

"I've seen some wheat around Ione and Heppner that is dead already, and we have had reports of a couple of farmers plowing their spring wheat up."

Michael Stoltz, a regional director for the OSU Extension Service, said the situation is so bad agriculture officials may need to officially label it a drought.

To do that, teams that include representatives from federal and state agencies and the Extension Service must ask Gov. John Kitzhaber to review their climate and crop information for the six counties and declare a drought emergency. That would clear the way for federal and state loans to defer the expected crop losses.

Kent Willett, executive director of the Umatilla County Farm Service Agency office in Pendleton, said his office soon will send a "flash report" to the state FSA office. Eventually such reports will be forwarded to Kitzhaber, informing him of a drought situation that now appears irreversible.

"Even if it rained today," Willett said, "it is too little, and too late. With prices down and no rain, it's been a pretty bleak year."